Maya Beiser, the reigning queen of the avant-garde cello, has been pushing out the boundaries of her instrument for years, but in a rapturous, high-intensity performance on Saturday night at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, it was clear she’s now aiming at almost transcendental heights. Switching between electric and amplified acoustic cellos, using electronics to build huge and sweeping juggernauts of sound, Beiser knitted pop and overtly spiritual music together — and found a deep, almost devotional thread running through everything she played.
Joined by percussionist Glenn Kotche (from the alt-rock band Wilco) and bassist Gyan Riley, Beiser devoted the first half of the evening to “uncovers” of well-known rock and blues songs, in provocative re-imaginings by the composer Evan Ziporyn. There’s always a whiff of preciousness when the art crowd goes pop, but these were far from the insipid little arrangements that plague “crossover” classical recitals. Beiser turned in gutsy and aggressive performances of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” and several others. And while Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” took an unfortunate beating, Kotche’s own “Three Parts Wisdom” was a soaring, gorgeous tour de force for solo cello, with Beiser accompanying herself in real time through electronic delays.
But the deepest and most extraordinary music-making of the evening, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts, came after intermission. From behind a row of flickering candles, Beiser (solo now, but still amplified) presented three overtly spiritual works that together seemed to form a ritualistic whole, building from introspection into ecstatic communion. Singing in Aramaic, she opened with a radiant, hymn-like treatment of “Kol Nidrei” — the ancient Jewish prayer — written for her by the Muslim composer Mohammed Fairouz, followed by the serene, minimalist “All Vows” by Michael Gordon.
But it was Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops” that lifted the evening to an exalting, almost breathless new plane. The 25-minute work (built on just intonation, ancient modes and electronic loops) opens innocuously, with buoyant riffs over a quiet drone, and you think you’re in for a travelogue. But its power builds with unstoppable force, deepening and expanding with irresistible energy, and by the climax Beiser was filling the hall with a vast ecstatic ocean of sound.
Brookes is a freelance writer.