Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. (Hrafn Asgeirsson)
Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

For a couple of years now, the contemporary music series at the Atlas has done a signal service to Washington by presenting a wide range of important cutting-edge ensembles in significant work. But the Atlas has had a hard time helping to establish a context for this work: in showing why people should want to come, and why they should care. Thursday night’s concert, the last of the season, was a perfect example of fine music and fine performances adding up to an event that fell a little flat.

The performers were members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), one of the leading groups in the field these days; a co-founder, flutist Claire Chase, has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her work. The composer was Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a significant young (under 40) Icelandic composer. And the piece was the American premiere of the evening-length, four-part work “In the Light of Air,” commissioned by ICE, which had its world premiere in Reykjavik, Iceland, earlier in the week.

“In the Light of Air” is a quintet-cum-installation piece in which piano, viola, cello, harp and percussion intertwine like jazz soloists, taking turns to rise from the gentle, meandering, rich and dream-like texture of the whole, while globes of light suspended from overhead, extending out into the audience, dim and brighten to reflect what’s happening at any given moment in the score. The result is less a musical work than a musical space, less a narrative than an architecture, a place in which to sit and think and watch as different musical episodes are held up, one by one, for everybody’s delectation.

It went on for a little less than an hour, and then it ended. The composer came down and took her bows, and the audience applauded her and the excellent players — Cory Smythe, recently heard here as Hilary Hahn’s accompanist, sounding in his element on prepared piano; Kyle Armbrust on viola; Michael Nicolas on cello; Nuiko Wadden on harp; and Nathan Davis, at one point strolling to the back of the stage to play on a string of suspended silvery rectangles, like shimmering sheets of paper. And then everyone sat quietly, evidently unsure whether or not the evening was actually over.

What was missing? You had a good piece, great players, and an audience interested in both. You had refreshing, arresting sounds and a carefully thought-out experience. You didn’t have a sense of event. Figuring out how to create that is a challenge for all music presenters. How do you pinpoint the intangible element that elevates someone playing, say, works by Schubert into a performance listeners will remember for a lifetime? The music, of course, speaks for itself, but somehow Tuesday’s concert felt like a missed opportunity, as if the audience weren’t entirely privy to the conversation.