Though it's an uphill climb to develop audiences for contemporary classical composers, the path is easier when the compositions offer depth and intrigue, as did the Contemporary Music Forum's opening concert Thursday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The program opened with "Mystery," a song cycle for baritone (Randall Woodfield) and piano written by local composer Lori Laitman to accompany poems by Sara Teasdale. One jaunty piece, "The Kiss," featured dissonant piano to a gentle harmonic baritone melody until the two lines came together in a metaphoric tonal resolution.
Stephen Hartke's challenging "King of the Sun," a tableau for four instruments, was ably presented by violinist Lina Bahn, violist Osman Kivrak, cellist Lori Barnet and pianist Jeffery Watson. A puzzling beginning by the strings, sounding like dry flesh dragged on rubber sheeting, segued into other unusual tones pulled from the instruments. The complex--and riveting--third movement brought an organ's labored rumble from the piano, and at times Watson struck notes with one hand while reaching inside with the other to manipulate the wires, creating a reverberating afterlife for each note.
By now, John Cage has entered the standard repertoire, so his 1948 Suite for Toy Piano was the work by a recognized master that the Forum includes in its programs along with local and emerging composers. And as pianist Clinton Adams explained, the instrument--perched on two straight-back chairs--was an authentic toy piano complete with shallow music-box tone, but a fun choice in an otherwise strictly grown-up program.
Helmut Braunlich's "Incantation," a world premiere, was written with Native American healing ceremonies as its spiritual background. The array of homemade and ethnic percussion instruments played by Barry Dove simulated rattles and chants. Nancy Stagnitta's flute and Paul Johnson on double bass braided some rather staid melodies around each other.
The final piece, Pierre Jalbert's Trio, deserves to be heard more often. From the vigorous attack through two tightly focused movements, violin passages buzz and return, sustaining a threatening mood by clashing with tolling piano chords. In the end, the calm piano beacons through the chaos.