The Contemporary Music Forum showed its customary imagination and skill in last night's concert at the Corcoran, a program in commemoration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And while only one work was explicitly dedicated to the great, visionary leader, all the pieces probed the grief, emptiness and slow process of healing that death leaves in its wake.
Violinist Helmut Braunlich opened the program with a rather wooden performance of Hale Smith's "Epicedial Variations," a well-constructed, accessible but emotionally thin work. Braunlich's playing warmed up, however, in the next and certainly strongest work on the program, Lawrence Moss' "Elegy." Written in 1969 after the sudden death of his brother, the piece opens with an attack so savage it feels like flesh tearing open. Slowly, painfully, with tentative gestures and sustained harmonic passages, a fragile, brittle tissue is woven over the wound. Altogether an extraordinary work, finely played by Braunlich with violinist Keith Howard and Michael McClelland playing viola.
It proved a tough act for Luciano Berio's "O King" to follow. While colorful and entertaining, "O King" sounded overbred, superficial and insincere. It wasn't the fault of the performers, especially soprano Pamela Jordan, who was polished and well focused.
Elliott Carter's "Elegy," an early work so tonal it was shocking, was nobly and warmly played by McClelland, with Janet Flanagan at the piano. Jonathan Berger's antiwar "Diptych," for soprano, string quartet and tape, closed the program. It was an interesting piece, superbly sung by Jordan with a cutting, bitter edge. But its expressive vocal line and insistent, driving string accompaniment were marred by the tape, which sounded gimmicky and robbed the work of much of its dignity.