The Hammer Auditorium, at the north end of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, has a tiny stage, one most naturally suited to a single speaker or instrumentalist. And yet the Contemporary Music Forum packed it almost as tightly on Sunday afternoon as the Marx Brothers packed that stateroom in "A Night at the Opera," making space for a medium-size grand piano, half a dozen musicians and a battery of percussion instruments.
George Perle's "Critical Moments" began the program -- a set of six epigrammatic miniatures, each of which evokes a definite mood, says its piece, then scurries off. Perle, now in his nineties, combines the tensile clarity of Stravinsky with the intense compression of Anton Webern, adding his own distinct lyricism to the mix. I don't think I've ever heard a bad piece from this composer, and "Critical Moments," written when he was already in his eighties, is well up to his usual standards.
Pierre Jalbert is the composer in residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and a professor at Rice University in Texas. His Toccata began by sounding like a brisk, contemporary gloss on the piano music of Ravel before moving on to evoke the hammered and motoric structures of Prokofiev. There did not seem to be much especially original about the work, at least on a first hearing, but it made a grand and agreeably clangorous showpiece for pianist Audrey Andrist, who played with bright energy and remarkable strength.
Donald Erb's "Three Poems" for violin and piano struck me as willfully eclectic, sound-effects music -- strumming the innards of the piano and so on. If one had never seen and heard this done before, the pieces would likely have made a stronger impression, but the technique has been used extensively and seems to me exhausted, a leftover bit of self-conscious cleverness from yesterday's avant-garde. The opening movement, titled "Together Forever," was the most affecting, imbued with a spectral nostalgia.
The second movement of Derek Bermel's "Turnings" for solo piano is called "Nightmares and Chickens," perhaps the most unusual musical title since Erik Satie's "Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear." The movement is meant to evoke fluttering and clucking and it does, I suppose, so far as those things can be played on the piano. "Turnings" is, in six movements, a set of variations on what the composer calls a "made-up Protestant hymn tune." I was reminded of Frederic Rzewski's epical, modern-day-Lisztian "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" (brave and dubious words!) but Bermel infuses the music with a fanciful sense of humor that is his own. Lura Johnson was the resourceful pianist.
Adam Silverman, born in 1973, was the youngest composer on the program -- indeed, almost six decades Perle's junior. "Ricochet," for viola, clarinet and piano, is a graceful, melodic, mostly consonant piece, shot through with easy charm. Had I not been told that Silverman was a New Yorker, I would have pegged him as Parisian; if Francois Truffaut were alive and working today, "Ricochet" would have made a lovely score for one of his romances. Violist James Stern and clarinetist David Jones joined Andrist in an eager, affectionate performance.
The program closed with the world premiere of a new work for solo violin by the Washington born-and-bred composer Jeffrey Mumford. Titled "an expanding distance of multiple voices" (Mumford seems to dislike capital letters), this is a fine, strong piece that melds a near-medieval purity of line with assertively dissonant harmonies. Writing for solo violin is terribly difficult -- the instrument's timbre, unforgivingly exposed, can come to seem shrill -- but Mumford has created a five-movement piece that holds a listener's attention throughout, especially when played with the concentration and ferocity that its dedicatee, Lina Bahn, brought to it on Sunday.