The Library of Congress is famous for showcasing the world’s best chamber music groups — its concert series at the Coolidge Auditorium is one of the District’s must-hear events. But the Library is also a quiet champion of new music from living composers, and on Friday night, those roles came together in a performance by the New York-based Talea Ensemble, featuring four new cutting-edge, strikingly original works, three of them commissioned by the library itself.
The evening opened with “SynchroniCities,” by Talea co-founder Anthony Cheung. Described by the composer as a “personal sonic travelogue,” this 2012 octet proved to be a playful, quick-witted work, deftly tying the external world of sound to Cheung’s own internal cultural landscape — a probing, fascinating piece, awash in vibrant colors and as charming in the ears as in the brain.
Harder to cozy up to was “Wild Romance,” for soprano and eight players, by the inventive Greek composer George Aperghis. Jabbing and stabbing, driven by staccato bursts of sound and an anxious, unsettled energy, the work seemed to chase elusive shadows and then flee from them in terror. (Which, yes, does sound like some romances.) Soprano Jane Sheldon turned in a stunning performance of this often scorching piece, the only work of the evening not commissioned by the library.
Julian Anderson’s “Van Gogh/Blue” is, you will not be surprised to hear, inspired by the paintings and letters of the iconic painter, and it’s as radiant and light-filled as anything Van Gogh ever painted. Tracing the course of a day in the countryside — from a rapturous evocation of early-morning light to a wild dance under a torrent of stars — it’s a vivid work, steeped in Anderson’s own distinctively meditative approach. Luminous playing from clarinetists Marianne Gythfeldt and Rane Moore — who moved gradually from the stage to the back of the hall, as if echoing the arc of the sun — added to the cosmic dimensions of this fine new work, heard in its U.S. premiere.
The music of Brian Ferneyhough — a composer inevitably linked with the love-it-or-hate-it “New Complexity” movement — can be daunting even to the most adventurous ears. And his “Contracolpi” (heard here in its world premiere) is, indeed, a rigorous and exceptionally complex new work. But it’s also jaw-dropping in its sonic imagination — a gorgeous cascade of elegant surprises, poetic to its molecules and absolutely riveting from first note to last. It’s probably unwise to declare a new work a masterpiece on only one hearing, but never mind: This is a masterpiece. Kudos to both the library and the Talea Ensemble, which played the work (and everything else on the program) with verve and immaculate virtuosity.