Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, born on Oct. 30, 1863, gave to the art of music, in Washington and in the larger world, more than we can calculate even today, more than 30 years after her death. Beneficiaries during her lifetime included Be'la Barto'k, Aaron Copland, Arnold Scho nberg -- above all, the Library of Congress, to which she gave the splendid little concert hall that bears her name, as well as resources for commissioning and performing new music. She continues to give today, through the foundation that also bears her name, and each year on her birthday the eponymous foundation sponsors a "Founder's Day" concert in the eponymous auditorium. It is the kind of tradition that gives musical life in Washington (especially chamber music) its special flavor.
Last night's Founder's Day concert was up to the usual standard of this series, featuring the world premiere of a work commissioned by the foundation -- Vivian Fine's "Ode to Henry Purcell" -- as well as two works by previous beneficiaries of the foundation, David del Tredici and Roger Sessions. The performances, featuring soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, pianist Donald Sutherland and the Atlantic String Quartet, were first-class throughout.
The unquestionable masterpiece on the program was Sessions' brilliant, intense String Quartet No. 2, a work whose five sharply contrasted movements rise repeatedly to near-verbal levels of communication. The dialogue among the instruments is constant and intricate. It begins with a slow, thoughtful melody on the viola, picked up in turn by the other instruments, which merge their voices in a quasi-canonic unanimity that lapses into violent disagreement. The moods range from deep pensiveness to hectic lyricism, with never a moment of relaxation for players or audience, even in the central movement that is marked "Andante tranquillo." In the atmosphere built up by Sessions, there is deep portentousness in a trill, and a pizzicato can be as shocking as a slap in the face. The Atlantic Quartet explored its highly compressed statements with a style that rightly favored eloquence rather than polish.
Fine's "Ode to Henry Purcell" sounded, on its first night, like a significant addition to the limited repertoire for voice and string quartet (joining Respighi's "Il Tramonto," Scho nberg's Second Quartet and very little else). Bryn-Julson joined the quartet for this work, which uses texts by Rilke (sung in German) and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her deeply involved, musically precise performance contributed greatly to the music's impact.
Like Fine's "Ode," del Tredici's "Four songs on poems of James Joyce" have exquisitely chosen texts, delicately probed in finely expressive music that ventures into atonality without losing lyric grace. Pianist Sutherland was (as in so many of Bryn-Julson's recitals) an ideal partner.