One of the important projects of the musical year -- Joel Krosnick's five-part survey of largely unexplored contemporary American music for cello -- concluded last night at the Library of Congress with a marathon concert.
There were cello-piano works by Arthur Berger and Ben Weber, as well as larger scale pieces for cello and small orchestra from the pens of Richard Wernick, Susan Blaustein, Morton Subotnick and Ralph Shapey (with the Juilliard Contemporary Ensemble under Paul Zukofsky).
Compositional methods varied widely, but there was an almost consistent preoccupation through the evening with dark sonorities and with broad, sometimes rhapsodic, expressive gestures -- all in line with the cello's natural character.
Subotnick and Shapey produced the most spectacular creations -- employing lavish percussion and, in the case of the Subotnick, electronic effects that were much grander than normally heard on a chamber scale.
Shapey's Partita-Fantasia for cello and 16 players (1967) employed some of the most radical musical language of the whole series, but the composer's ear for expressive potential was so sure that compositional intricacy was no bar to dramatic effect. In fact, the cello cadenza accompanied by double bass and contrabassoon that concludes the grave opening movement recalled similar desolate passages in utterly different harmonic language in the works of Shostakovich. A powerful piece.
For all its avant-garde "ghost" electronics, the Subotnick, called "Axolotl," was also appealing, full of rich textures. Approached literally, the music may seem shapeless, but as the sounds of this "sonic atmosphere" escalate, and little snatches of rhythm, and melody, float briefly by through the void, the experience is of hearing something familiar in a dreamlike state; it's right there but not quite in focus.
Wernick's Concerto for cello and 10 players (1980) was also concerned with sonorities, to its detriment in its complex first movement, where orchestral instrumentation overwhelmed the solo. But in the other movement, a passacaglia with sinewy instrumentation that develops into a soothing reverie, the evening came its closest to genuine lyric eloquence.
Blaustein's driving Cello Concerto, receiving its premiere, seemed blurred in its expressive goals.
Krosnick played the Berger Duo (1951), a concise neoclassical work, and the Weber Five Pieces (a fine 1941 atonal creation repeated from earlier in the series) to perfection with that exemplary pianist, Gilbert Kalish.