A program of unexpected music was the greatest strength of the Thursday evening recital by Seth Parker Woods at the Phillips Collection. The American cellist, born in Texas and based in Chicago, played a compact 90 minutes of music by composers rarely heard, most of whom are still alive.
Woods seemed more a finesse player than a technical daredevil, with playing on the A string that was warm and plangent. He excelled in the gorgeous slow movement of the Cello Sonata by the late George Walker, who grew up in the District. Pianist Andrew Rosenblum, collaborating on just this piece, motored through the faster outer movements. Double-stops proved a stumbling block for Woods, in the sonata’s first movement and throughout the recital, often turning sour in intonation.
In Nathalie Joachim’s 2017 piece “Dam Mwen Yo,” Woods dialogued with a recorded ostinato of women singing and percussive clanging, emanating from a laptop on an adjacent chair. Similar traits rose to the fore in her new work, “The Race: 1915,” co-commissioned by the Phillips and the Seattle Symphony. The musical component of the piece was not especially compelling, but the score also called for Woods to recite powerful words about a horrific lynching in 1915 from The Chicago Defender, an influential African American newspaper.
Also worth discovering were the two movements from “Lamentations,” a solo cello suite by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, a musician who conducted orchestras and also played with and arranged for Max Roach. The eponymous motif in “Calvary Ostinato” was a syncopated pizzicato bass line over which Woods wove bluesy fragments into a relaxed groove. The “Fuguing Tune,” with more challenging double-stops that were a little too far into blue-note territory, was less successful.
Tania León drew from her opera on the story of the Little Rock Nine in her new piece for solo cello, “Arkansas.” Out of context as a few simple musical motifs, the piece did not make much of an impression. Alvin Singleton’s “Argoru II,” from 1970, had the opposite problem: It made a mostly negative impression, dribs and drabs of tiny motifs in a Webernesque web that ran on far too long.