In a review of the Washington Music Ensemble's Festival Benelux, Alan Mandel was incorrectly identified. He is the ensemble's artistic director.
Anyone interested in classical music can name a slew of German, Russian, French or Italian composers. Try to come up with a single musical heavyweight from Belgium, the Netherlands or Luxembourg, though, and it's tough to get beyond Ce'sar Franck. This isn't to say that these countries lack musical wealth or artistry. Yet somehow their creations have eluded American ears.
The Washington Music Ensemble's Festival Benelux, which ran from last Thursday through Sunday night, was above all a consciousness-raising effort. Presenting an ambitious series of five concerts in four days at such diverse venues as the National Press Club, the chancery of the Embassy of the Netherlands and American University's Kay Spiritual Life Center, the ensemble introduced listeners to an immense repertoire spanning three centuries.
Although it would be impossible to define the three nations' musical personalities on the basis of these concerts alone, certain impressions linger. The first is that contemporary composition seems to be thriving, and veering off in a number of interesting directions. "Strides," for example, a short work for piano by the Dutchman Theo Loevendie, has its roots in the American jazz style of "stride" piano playing made famous by musicians such as Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Loevendie, who was present for ensemble director Alan Mandel's vigorous rendering of this work, has coupled a jerkingly rhythmic bass line (the stride) with a dissonant overlay of repeated notes and clangorous chord clusters. The mixture worked beautifully.
Yet another unlikely, but equally affecting, combination occurred in Peter Schat's "Canto general" for soprano, violin and piano. The music is alternately dreamy and anguished, set to a searing Spanish text by the great poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda's images -- blood, earth, water, stone, seedlings -- carry great emotional rawness and weight; Schat's difficult but wrenching atonalities provide the appropriate balance. And few singers could come close to Elizabeth Kirkpatrick's thoroughly personal way with dramatic musical material.
A second area of invention worth noting is that of the Belgian virtuoso tradition. These 19th-century works, many composed by such violin masters as Arto t, Vieuxtemps, Ysay e and De Be'riot, are utterly Romantic in style, but devoid of the showiness for showiness' sake that infuses the work of, say, Paganini. The most elegant of those highlighted at the festival was the Vieuxtemps Sonata in B flat for Viola and Piano, played exquisitely by violist Miles Hoffman and Mandel.
Among the other fine and versatile performers were baritone Jerome Barry, violinist Mary Findley, clarinetist Charles Stier, flutist Jan Pompilo, percussionist Richard McCandless and cellist David Premo.