Saturday night was the anniversary of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's birth -- an event celebrated annually in the Library of Congress auditorium donated by the music patron and named in her honor.
But the performers, the contemporary music ensemble Continuum, also observed Halloween with Henry Cowell's "The Banshee," one of the first piano compositions in which the player attacks the strings directly rather than via the keyboard, producing high-pitched instrumental screams and sweeping, ghostlike growls.
The temperament of Cowell (1897-1965) and that of pianist Cheryl Seltzer were in total agreement, and the result was a blend of urgency and humor, genius and ardor, in five Cowell piano pieces played with revolutionary percussive techniques both on the keyboard and inside the piano. The fact that these pieces were written between 1917 and 1925 indicates Cowell's prophetic vision in the creative use of sound.
Even though Leon Kirchner was born around the time that Cowell began crawling inside pianos, his music remains traditionally expressive. It is, however, concerned with the expansion of musical form -- as in the Trio for violin, cello and piano in two movements (1954). This work was performed with an acute concern for its rhapsodic qualities in the first movement. The second movement often takes on the characteristics of a dialogue between impulsive outbursts (from the piano) and reactionary responses (in the strings).
For a composer who concerns himself so intently with highly organized structures, Milton Babbitt's use of a moving vocal outline and fine poetic settings helped generate a successful performance of "A Solo Requiem," for voice and two pianos (1976-77). Soprano Victoria Villamil's emotionally charged approach to the subject -- death -- added significantly to the interest of this work, despite its cerebral structures, as did the waves of torrential interaction created by pianists Seltzer and Joel Sachs.
Russian composer Alfred Schnittke's "Concerto Grosso" (1977) comes off as a rude combination of disjunct styles, mildly distressing in the early movements, progressively more oppressive and less concerned with reconciling its polarities. Continuum's complement of string players, making up a small orchestra, vacillated between drawn-out microtonal sections and foot-stomping dances, while two solo violinists traded blows. Moods changed so frequently that a listener with a limited attention span would have been impressed. Unfortunately, the ensemble, under the baton of Sachs, could do little to pull this piece out of a sea of awkward feeling and orchestration.