In his 1981 chamber work "The Ugly Duckling," Jon Deak accomplishes what very few contemporary composers have: He has written a piece of music both accessible and intelligent, hilarious and touching, and -- best of all -- one that appeals to adults, children and poultry lovers alike. Not since Saint-Sae ns' "Carnival of the Animals" or Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" has a member of the animal kingdom been given such a clear musical persona.
"Duckling," which opened the Twentieth Century Concerts Saturday afternoon concert at the Hirshhorn Museum Auditorium, employs an unlikely instrument, the contrabass, as the voice and the waddle of the poor misunderstood bird. Deak, principal contrabassist of the New York Philharmonic (and a charming actor as well), was on hand to bring the character to life, and to provide other sound effects as well -- eggs hatching, doors creaking and the like. The versatile soprano Lucy Shelton sang the role of the duck's bewildered mom, various cruel birds, a dog, a tomcat and a hen, and also served as narrator of the tale. And about midway into the work, the American String Quartet entered into the fray.
This compelling concert also included performances of Luciano Berio's "Circles" (set to the poetry of E.E. Cummings), Claus Adam's "String Quartet" and Neal Rolnick's duet for percussionist and computer-generated tape, "Ever-livin' Rhythm."