There was no time for dozing off at the Hirshhorn Saturday night. The 20th Century Consort tested its followers with a demanding program that included the premiere of a dense work by Richard Wernick, Berg's equally intense Quartet Op. 3 and Messiaen's intricate "Poe mes pour Mi." The audience rose enthusiastically to the challenge, giving the performers a deservedly warm response.
The opening piece, Wernick's "Sonata for Piano (1982) Reflections of a Dark Light," is, as Consort member Lambert Orkis put it, "a humdinger." He had worked with Wernick off and on for 10 years, playing his music and with his group, the Penn Contemporary Players. Since Wernick, who has won many awards including a Pulitzer Prize, had never written a piano sonata, Orkis commissioned him to write one. When Orkis saw the results last June, it was something like love at first gasp. "You wanted a large work," Wernick told him. "You got it."
The seed of the entire sonata is contained in the first two measures, from which the three movements are derived with a Beethoven-like ferocity of logic. Though often harsh, the music has an emotional edge that makes its architecture vivid. When the bell-like tones of the remarkable closing passage sound, the listener feels that an impressive journey has been completed. Orkis projected the expressive and structural design of the work with a power and concentration that were close to awesome.
Soprano Lucy Shelton brought a radiant presence and exquisite control to the refined raptures of the Messiaen songs, in which Orkis proved a highly sensitive partner. The Emerson Quartet's interpretation of the Berg Quartet seemed a bit off the mark, sometimes too flaccid, especially in the opening section, and at other times too tense to allow room for the music's inherent lyricism.