"Is this microphone working?" asked Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Mel Powell Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre. Assured by the audience that it was, Powell replied, "Damn. I have nothing to say."
Powell, of course, was fibbing. In this retrospective concert given by the California Institute of the Arts' splendid Twentieth Century Players, the Colorado String Quartet and assorted guest artists, his compositions -- and extensive program notes -- spoke volumes.
Powell writes music that is rigorously disciplined in an academic sense yet accessible. Highbrow music, if you will, without the frown. Still, in Wednesday's special tribute, where the literati clearly outnumbered the glitterati, one was reminded that Powell's music deserves a wider currency.
Those who performed his compositions on this occasion -- students, teachers and alumni of Cal Arts' School of Music (Powell was the founding dean) -- clearly love his music. And it is not hard to see why.
The eight works on the program spanned nearly 50 years of creativity, and all bore the same stamp of honest craftsmanship and sonic command. His Divertimento for Violin and Harp and Divertimento for Five Winds, both written in the '50s, were the most easily grasped. Each was a joyous assemblage of melodic line and coloration -- exactly the kind of material one might expect to hear from a former arranger for the great Benny Goodman band.
But the later works, such as String Quartet (1982) and the "Little Companion Pieces" (1979), had their own enigmatic magic: The language thickened yet sonorities remained translucent. Hearing "Amy-abilities" for Solo Percussionist (1987) and Three Madrigals for Flute Alone (1989) -- both moving explorations into music absent of any program but its own internal relationships -- made one feel that Powell, rather than ending a journey after half a century, is just embarking on one.