At the Kennedy Center Chamber Players' recital Sunday at the Terrace Theater, pianist Lambert Orkis, violinist Nurit Bar-Josef and cellist David Hardy evoked both the elegant manners and the proto-romantic gestures in Mozart's Trio in C, K. 548. Later, joined by violinist Marissa Regni and violist Daniel Foster, they played Franck's gorgeous, emotionally fraught Piano Quintet with a febrile sense of identification.
But the recital's centerpiece was George Crumb's remarkable "Voice of the Whale (Vox Balaenae)," his 1971 fantasia on humpback whale songs, scored for amplified flute, cello and piano. The composer asks the flutist to whistle and sing into the instrument, the cellist to play slithering glissandos and eerie harmonics, and the pianist to alter the sound of the keyboard's strings with glass rods and paper clips. The resulting soundscape evokes everything from Balinese gamelan to 1960s audio-tape experiments, from Meredith Monk's extended vocal techniques to Harry Partch's homemade instruments -- all filtered through a haunting, meditative, decidedly aquatic sensibility.
Performing under the deep-blue stage lights the composer requests for the piece, Orkis, Hardy and flutist Toshiko Kohno were clearly working hard to fulfill the score's unconventional demands. But they were so in touch with the composer's idiom that any focus on the mechanics of music-making was soon replaced by the wonder of hearing instrumental textures that sounded at once ancient and new-minted, nature-generated and startlingly human.
-- Joe Banno