Arthur Weisberg and his Contemporary Chamber Ensemble opened the Library of Congress concert season last night with music that was easy to admire and respect but very difficult to love.
The most evocative was Miriam Gideon's song cycle, "Spirit Above the Dust," commissioned last year by the Library's Coolidge Foundation. The human voice is the most personal of instruments, and in this work, mezzo-soprano Elaine Bonazzi lavished a particularly warm and compelling sound on splendid texts by Bradstreet, MacLeish and Rosten. Gideon, paying special attention to the inflection of the language, has written vocal lines that are dramatic without being particularly lyrical, and instrumental support that is more punctuation than partnership.
The concert opened with two octets for clarinet, bassoon, French horn and strings, one called "How Now" by Betsy Jolas, and another by Isang Yun. Each lasted about 15 minutes, each featured slowly changing textures and colors, and each was more notable for craftsmanship than for musical content. The trouble was that, side by side, they were like identical twins. Undoubtedly, if you knew them well they were easy to tell apart, but they certainly were a lot alike.
Peter Maxwell Davies' "Ave Maris Stella" for flute, clarinet, viola, cello and marimba ended the evening with distinction. For one thing, it gave the members of the ensemble a chance to show their individual stuff and they did so splendidly. A rather simple theme is explored exhaustively in this piece, and run through all sorts of intriguing combinations of instruments. The marimba writing is marvelous and so was Raymond DesRoches' realization of it. The music moved from cool to hot and the tension from calm to frenzied, all carried out with the most satisfying technical and artistic performing excellence.