Jeffrey Mumford is the composer-in-residence at the National Gallery of Art this year, and it’s a fitting distinction, given that Mumford is a native of the District and has long been a central figure in the small-but-feisty contemporary music scene here. The gallery is mounting three concerts this month to celebrate Mumford’s music, and the first — performed in the East Building on Sunday night by the museum’s New Music Ensemble — offered an illuminating glimpse into the composer’s complex and richly imaginative music, in which an almost romantic sensibility seems to radiate through a thoroughly contemporary surface.
The first two pieces on the program (which was titled “Multiple Voices” — a nod both to Mumford’s multilayered style and to other composers who influenced or were influenced by him) underscored that combination. Brahms’s Intermezzo No. 2 in A is a profoundly emotional work, which Mumford says has drawn him to it from a young age, and it was given a warm, nuanced reading by pianist Lura Johnson. It was immediately contrasted with Elliott Carter’s “String Trio” from 2011, a short but challenging work to which violist Jonathan Richards — in the lead role — brought real drama.
Carter was a teacher of Mumford’s, and his influence was abundantly clear in the works that followed. Mumford’s engaging “Tango-Variations” was performed in two versions, the 1984 original (for solo piano) and a more recent revision for chamber orchestra, which opened up the work and revealed its shifting planes of sound. A string trio from 2008 titled “In Soft Echoes . . . a World Awaits” followed, and its 15 miniature movements — some only a few seconds long — were built on Mumford’s long-standing fascination with light — in this case, the light within clouds.
A feisty little piano etude by the composer Courtney Bryan, a former pupil of Mumford’s, followed, but the most stunning work of the evening was Mumford’s own deeply personal work for solo violin titled “An Expanding Distance of Multiple Voices,” played by violinist Lina Bahn. It’s a remarkable work, and Bahn (for whom it was written) played it with insight and obvious commitment. More of Mumford’s music will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 10 and 17 at the National Gallery. For anyone interested in new music, it’s well worth hearing.
Brookes is a freelance writer.