"I do not subscribe to the theory of emotion in music ," Robert Hall Lewis told the audience last night in the Corcoran Gallery, just before the world premiere of his "Fantasiemusik III." On the evidence of the new work's four succinct, colorful movements, he does subscribe to the use of melody -- sometimes lavishly elaborated, sometimes barely hinted. But, as specified, the music expressed only itself: a colorful array of echoing and contrasting colors, tempos, contours and gestures; the composer sought a "distinctive profile" in this music and achieved it.
The Contemporary Music Forum, which co-commissioned the work, launched it impressively in a program devoted to five Washington composers and including three first performances. Besides the Lewis work, the forum unveiled three lean, sinewy Bagatelles for flute and violin by Brian Bennett and an intensely expressive song, "From 'James Lee's Wife,' " by Anthony Stark, who seems to subscribe wholeheartedly to emotional expression.
Also on the program were two intriguing works by women. Mary Howe's warmly lyrical Sonata for Violin and Piano, beautifully crafted in a late Romantic style with hints of Impressionism, was exquisitely performed by violinist Helmut Braunlich and pianist Barbro Dahlman. Jean Eichelberger Ivey's powerful song cycle "Solstice," which has been performed by this group before, sounded better than ever with soprano Pamela Jordan integrating her voice superbly into an ensemble of flute, percussion and piano. One of the problems of new music is that so much of it drops from sight after one or two performances -- not nearly enough for exploration of its novelties and complexities. "Solstice" seems to be surmounting this problem, and with each new appearance it sounds more like a classic.
Stark's work, for a similar ensemble plus violin and a second percussionist, is part of a cycle still being composed with texts by Robert Browning in "an attempt to work through the emotional states that romantic love generates." The music has a striking range of instrumental textures to set off the soprano voice, relieve it with instrumental interludes and reinforce the emotional impact of the words, which are definitely the music's focus. Considerable demands are made on the singer, particularly in her high register, and Jordan had a few moments of starkly exposed insecurity. But this seemed apt in a vocal work whose text trembles for a while on the brink of insecurity. There is power in the music and it came through well in the performance.
Bennett's slight, almost epigrammatic Bagatelles are in turn playful and solemn, virtuoso exercises that were superbly played by Braunlich and flutist Katherine Hay -- an outstanding performer also in the Stark and Ivey works.