Luciano Berio's "Circles" spins out three poems by e.e. cummings in a properly circular form, turning around midway and going back to its first text. It employs two percussionists playing more than 70 instruments circled around them and makes them move in circles as they dash from wood blocks to tubular chimes to bongo or marimbaphone. There is a harp that produces not only the usual shimmering arpeggios, but clicks and buzzes, rolls of thunder and the sound of nails scraping on strings. Above all, there is a soprano who also plays a bit of percussion, but mostly deals with the words in tones that range from whisper to scream.
It may seem improbable after this description, but the music gives the words considerably more clarity and impact than they usually have on the printed page. It is performed in Washington about once every dozen years and should be done more often. Wednesday night, in the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street, it was beautifully performed by Elizabeth Kirkpatrick (the thinking man's soprano) and the Amaranth ensemble. Especially noteworthy was the precise and often delicate percussion-playing of Richard McCandless and Richard O'Meara.
For an audience that included many fellow musicians, the Washington group gave a highly varied program, ranging from Debussy's 1915 Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp to the world premiere of James Wright's "Thrymskvitha," a cutely colloquial adaptation of a comic saga from "the mellifluous Old Norse of the immortal Anonymous" for a narrator and taped sounds.
Two works featured the solo flute of Jan Pompilo. In Jutta Eigen's "Center Sounds," composed earlier this year, she held a dialogue with harpist James Pinkerton -- serenely melodious at first, then rising through varied complexities and agitations to a satisfying climax. In Preston Trombly's "Kinetics III" (1971), the flute is a shining, silver ribbon woven (not without knots) through an uncommonly rich and varied texture of taped sound. Pompilo played with great poise and fine technique in both works. Pinkerton was superb in the Eigen and two other works as was violist George Ohlson in the Debussy. The tape did exactly what it was supposed to do.
In "Thrymskvitha," the tape held the spotlight. Narrator Elizabeth Bulkley told the old story of how Thor recovered his stolen hammer with finely pointed wit, but in the church's resonant acoustics her voice was sometimes overpowered by the taped sounds. A slight reduction of volume might help when (as it should be) it is performed again.