Review: Enso String Quartet at the National Gallery

Thursday, November 26, 2009; 4:54 PM

No one in the audience should have been caught unaware, but after 45 minutes of agreeably colorful and nostalgic music (all written within the last eight years), Steve Reich, in his dark and aggressive 1980s persona, was a jolt.

It was the second concert in the 64th American Music Festival at the National Gallery, on Wednesday at noon (a departure from the NGA's usual Sunday evening offerings), and in the East Building's auditorium, another departure. The artists were the members of the Enso String Quartet and, besides Reich's autobiographical "Different Trains," their program included autobiographical works by Paul Moravec and John Corigliano and a set of poetic odes to cold by Pierre Jalbert.

Reich spent a hunk of his childhood in the United States traveling by train from coast to coast and parent to parent. He is Jewish and, at some point, he started thinking about what sort of dire rail destination might have been his had he and his family not left their native Germany when they did. All of these experiences and thoughts are wrapped into the three movements of "Different Trains": "America Before the War," "Europe During the War" and "After the War."

For material, he uses the taped voices of a Holocaust survivor, his old nanny who traveled with him and a Pullman porter. Instrumental sounds, on tape and live, pick up on the inflections and rhythms of scraps of these voices and the incessant urgency of a train's energy. It's loud, unrelenting and angry-sounding -- unsettling and, played as well as it was here, intriguing -- but long enough to feel more like a mugging than an artistic experience.

The rest of the program was nice but pretty well eclipsed by Reich's piece. Both Moravec's "Vince and Jan" and Corigliano's "Snapshot circa 1909" were based on early pictures (projected over the stage) of the composers' parents. They are literal, wryly tuneful, a little chromatic and, above all, wistful. Jalbert's "Icefield Sonnets" explore the idea of cold effectively in three movements of very different textures, sorts of motion and relationships among the instruments. The Quartet gave all of these committed and polished performances.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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