Friends, Colleagues Gather for a Memorial Concert for Dina Koston of the Theater Chamber Players

Koston, a co-founder of the Theater Chamber Players, died in April.
Koston, a co-founder of the Theater Chamber Players, died in April.
By Joan Reinthaler
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 31, 2009

Dina Koston was a unique character -- a meticulous pianist and an unconventional composer -- opinionated in her judgment of music, relentless in her pursuit of excellence and, in the words of her friend and collaborator, pianist Leon Fleisher, "complicated, compulsive, wacky and wacked out." Koston, whose Theater Chamber Players enriched the local music scene from 1968 to 2004, died in April. On Saturday, a group of her TCP regulars came together at the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda for a memorial concert and some reminiscences.

For their time, the Theater Chamber Players pioneered a concept (predating the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center). The vision was of a wide-ranging ensemble able to take on a more eclectic repertoire than the conventional string quartets and the occasional baroque ensembles that dominated the chamber music world. Koston sought out Fleisher, her mentor and piano teacher, whose career at the time was sidelined by a nerve condition that left his right hand unusable. "Dina cleverly introduced an idea," Fleisher related on Saturday. "So much of the chamber repertoire needed a conductor; why didn't I conduct? And over the course of two or three years, this helped me fight off my depression, and I've been conducting ever since." So Koston and Fleisher became a team and the TCP became one of the more interesting artistic undertakings around. In the '70s, the TCP was named the Kennedy Center's resident chamber ensemble.

Their programs were a wild mix of the contemporary and the baroque with, maybe, some Brahms mixed in. Usually there was a vocal piece or two, a pairing of Ligeti and Boccherini or Wolpe and Telemann. Koston brought in artists from around the world (violinist Pina Carmirelli was a charter TCP member) but looked locally for many long-standing regulars, among them flutist William Montgomery, cellist Evelyn Elsing and organist Donald Sutherland, all of whom performed on Saturday.

Koston would have loved the program. Her own compositions alternated with music by Debussy ("Syrinx" for flute) and Bach (an organ Fantasy and Fugue and two movements of the Cello Suite in D). The program closed with recorded performances of Koston playing a set of Variations by Webern, and then Koston and Carmirelli playing the Debussy Violin Sonata. In true TCP tradition, the performances were always musically satisfying and sometimes splendid. Mezzo-soprano Patricia Green pulled off Koston's delicious "Wordplay" with wonderfully funny and suggestive dramatic pizazz, milking every possible interpretation by fooling around with accents in the words "consent," "conduct," "present," "console" and several others, and then ending by accompanying herself on the piano in a jolly rendition of Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (you know, "potato, potahto," etc.).

TCP members joined with artists of the Cygnus Ensemble for the world premiere of Koston's last composition, a set of variations called "Distant Intervals," commissioned by Cygnus a year ago. Scored for nine instruments, strings (including two guitars), brass and woodwinds, it evolved from a sort of in-your-face stridency to calm reflection, along the way exploring a brilliant palette of sound combinations.

Soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, conductor Joel Lazar, guitarist William Anderson and musicologist Wayne Shirley offered their Koston stories, funny and affectionate, of a woman who, as Lazar said, challenged them to think profoundly.

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