The Verge Ensemble at the Corcoran: On the verge of new musical territory

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The venerable Verge Ensemble, which has been rattling D.C.'s musical cage since 1973 with smart, innovative programs of new music, opened its 37th season on Sunday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and it's clear the group has lost neither its adventurous bite nor its commitment to local composers.

Take, for instance, the superb "Hazmats Sextet" by the Peabody Conservatory's David Smooke, which opened the program. Smooke has some of the most uninhibited brain cells around: The work, which he describes as "birds flying through a continually fracturing landscape," evoked a kaleidoscopic sonic universe where anything could happen. It was one of those rare pieces you fall in love with from the get-go. If this is hazardous musical material, send more.

There was a different kind of radioactivity in Ken Ueno's rather severe "Sabinium," for electronic tape with a video realization by animator Harvey Goldman. Ueno recorded the sounds of bursting bath bubbles, convolved them with battle noises and built the results into a sometimes-fragile, sometimes-brutal but always poetic piece of noise music. Goldman's animation -- primordial cell-like structures interacting in a sort of cosmic soup -- elegantly interpreted the score and referenced the underlying story of the Sabine women, and in spite of its mercilessly monochromatic and minimalist materials, "Sabinium" was fascinating throughout.

The redoubtable Lina Bahn turned in a very smart performance of David Felder's "Another Face," a tour de force for solo violin that explores issues of identity with acute psychological insight; it was like listening to someone struggle out of the maze of their own self. The world premiere of Wesley Fuller's "phases/cycles for viola and computer" fared less well, despite fine playing from John Pickford Richards. While engaging at first -- it sounded like some tender, inter-species love song -- the work sagged under a computer-generated track that was often alarmingly cartoonish, as if R2-D2 were bleeping and pinging in the wings. But the program closed strongly with "Resonance," a lyrical and beautifully crafted piece for flute, piano and cello from American University's Eric Slegowski.

-- Stephen Brookes

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