Right in the center of last night's concert at the National Academy of Sciences was Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto -- not a piece that we hear every week in Washington, but one composed in a recognizable and widely accepted style. For most of last night's audience, one suspects, it was welcome as an island of familiarity, in a raging sea of Washington premieres. It is, in fact, a masterpiece, and it received a performance worthy of its stature from clarinetist Stephen Bates, the New World Players and conductor Stephen Kleiman. The playing was alert and well-articulated, the small orchestra's tone rich but transparent, the solo performance expert and neatly balanced with the orchestra.
Otherwise, the concert was a smorgasbord of mostly contemporary music from Scandinavia -- occasionally sweet but more often highly spiced -- with one late romantic piece, a cello concerto by Aarre Merikanto (1865-1931) of Finland, that felt oddly out of place. The three contemporary works, by Folke Stromholm of Norway, Karolina Eriksdottir of Iceland and Sven-Erik Baeck of Sweden, were all expertly crafted and showed substantial affinities between the avant-garde of Scandinavia and our own. None of them ventured near the extremes of what has been done in America during the last generation with electronic sounds, minimalism, aleatory techniques, etc., and there was little evidence of undue influence by Arnold Schoenberg.
If any trends can be detected among the living composers represented in this program, they are rather general and highly positive: a penchant for emotional statement, a strong sense of dramatic structures, a very high level of ability in orchestration, and particularly in the effective use of percussion. Among the great composers of the earlier 20th century, the one whose influence seemed clearest in this music was probably Bela Bartok, particularly in Baeck's "Ciclos," a dazzling concerto in five symmetrically arranged movements for piano, strings and an enormous, effectively used percussion battery.
Baeck makes fascinating use of sound textures in the soloist's dialogues with the strings and the percussion. He dwells with fascination on the contrast between the crisp, non-resonant notes at the top of the piano keyboard and the mellow tones lower down, their golden shimmer and slow, gentle decay. The evening came closest to avant-garde cliche', perhaps, in the central slow movement, the music's stylistic and emotional pivot, when pianist Ralf Gothoni reached into the piano's insides. But this passing whimsy did not disturb the work's essentially solid structure and effect.
Stromholm's "Samiaednan" uses folk motifs, very simply stated, as a basis for complex and strikingly orchestrated discussion by the ensemble. Probably the most emotionally urgent music of the evening was Eriksdottir's "Sonans," brilliant in its use of brass and metallophonic textures and its touches of woodwind color, but particularly exciting because of the rhythmic energy of its fast outer movements. All of this music was well worth hearing, not because of any technical revelations but because it had something to say and said it expertly.
The performances sounded extremely good (insofar as one can judge at a premiere) in the three contemporary pieces, somewhat less so in the Merikanto Cello Concerto, whose soggy, overlong slow movement (basically the composer's responsibility) might have been rescued to some extent by a virtuoso interpretation. Cellist Erkki Rautio seemed most at home making impassioned statements on his lower strings -- a talent useful in much of this work but not quite enough to make it memorable. The woodwinds leaped into the perky last movement of this music with something like a shout of joy, and the ensemble returned to the usual high standard which had been somewhat lost in the longueurs of the slow movement.