Can contemporary music be fun? That was the question on Sunday afternoon, when the Verge Ensemble put on a relaxed, just-hanging-out-playing-music concert at Westmoreland Congregational Church. And the answer, clearly, was an emphatic: Why not?
The Verge has been dishing out cutting-edge music to District audiences since 1973, and Sunday’s concert (held to celebrate the group’s appointment as New Music Ensemble-in-Residence at the Washington Conservatory of Music) focused on three living American composers, including the formidable Steve Antosca, who started the group all those eons ago.
Pianist Lura Johnson, cellist Tobias Werner and marimbist William Richards opened the afternoon with Marc Mellits’s “Tight Sweater,” a six-part suite in a minimalist style. Building short, repeated, pop-influenced patterns into a driving whole, it was perfectly pleasant if a little empty-headed; think “Steve Reich Lite,” and you get the idea. And depending on your philosophy, the movements’ Frank Zappa-ish titles (“Evil Yellow Penguin,” “Trans Fatty Acid’s Rein,” Pickle Trousers,” etc.) were either (a) cute, (b) cutesy, or (c) galloping into Cutesytown with a ribbon in their hair. But it was a good antidote to the self-seriousness of much new music, which was the point, so kudos for that.
Two movements from Antosca’s five-part “Elements for Cello and Electronics” followed, and proved to be far more substantial. The work explores a vast new range of extended techniques Antosca developed for the cello, but it’s not just a catalogue of unusual sounds; in Werner’s hands the work came off as an eloquent, engaging and very human soliloquy with a sense of quiet drama.
Violinist Lina Bahn took the stage with Werner and Johnson to close out the afternoon with Dan Visconti’s piano trio “Lonesome Roads.” The players could barely contain their affection for the work, a bluesy, freewheeling suite that evokes the spirit — and mimics the sounds — of a car trip across the United States. Propulsive, cinematic, charging into the horizon with the top down and the wind howling by, it’s a work so full of life that all you want to do is climb in for the ride.
Brookes is a freelance writer.