Music Review: Anne Midgette on the Verge Ensemble at Corcoran

Pianist Audrey Andrist and violinist James Stern joined for
Pianist Audrey Andrist and violinist James Stern joined for "Birds in Warped Time II."
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Verge Ensemble, a power hitter on Washington's modest contemporary music scene, is coming off a 35th-anniversary season that saw involvement in the new 3gen Festival in Washington, several performances in New York and a stint at the legendary new-music festival June in Buffalo: in short, the continuing development of a national presence.

The anchor of the ensemble's activities, however, remains its series at the Corcoran. On Sunday afternoon, it followed its bracing and wide-ranging 35th season with a 36th-season opener that seemed, in new-music terms, almost preternaturally friendly. Certainly the six pieces on the program represented a wide range of idioms, but if there was a common theme, it was that all of them avoided the thorny impenetrability of high-church modernism and embraced moments of prettiness.

Even the most austere, Harvey Sollberger's "Sunflowers" for flute and vibraphone (David Whiteside and Barry Dove), was softened when it was taken over by a set of overlapping patterns of singing melody from the two instruments, like the foam of wavelets intersecting on the shore.

It was also an intimate program: music for one and two players. The biggest work was Paul Moravec's "Passacaglia," an impassioned piece for piano trio that had the players biting into big musical gestures with full-blown, romantic, crowd-pleasing intensity.

The pianist Audrey Andrist had the biggest workout, appearing in four of the pieces, starting with the feathery repetitions underlying a more emotive violin line (provided by James Stern) in Somei Satoh's ingratiating "Birds in Warped Time II," and ending with her own solo turn in Robert Gibson's thoughtful "A Sound Within."

Dove returned with a whole battery of percussion and the violinist Lina Bahn for the final piece, a world premiere by Jonathan Leshnoff, currently the composer in residence of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Leshnoff appeared (to judge in part from his own remarks to the audience before the piece) to have been so delighted with the range of instruments available that he got a little distracted: "Six Miniatures for Violin and Percussion" involved trying out a lot of pleasant sounds in pretty little segments. You could say it was on the Verge of something better.

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