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Atlas showcases cutting-edge music with ‘Irreverence’

The Great Noise Ensemble. (Kate Kress)

Is the Atlas Performing Arts Center — at the heart of D.C.’s designated hipster zone on H Street Northeast — fast becoming the city’s center for cutting-edge music? That seems to be the goal of Atlas Music Director Armando Bayolo. He’s bringing some of the biggest guns in new music to town this season — including So Percussion, Maya Beiser and the International Contemporary Ensemble — and on Friday night he showcased his own Great Noise Ensemble in a wild and sometimes woolly program titled “Irreverence,” featuring music inspired by insectivorous plants, a hyperkinetic chamber symphony from John Adams and a kind of profane pop oratorio by Bayolo himself — in which God, at a climactic moment, yells at Adam: “You could have lived in Paradise! Why couldn’t you keep your. . . mouth shut?”

An appealing new quartet by Jonathan Newman kicked off the concert. It’s titled, unforgettably, “These Inflected Tentacles.” It’s a dicey-sounding title, but the work is actually built on Charles Darwin’s 19th-century accounts of dropping glass, hair and other bits of stuff into Venus’ flytraps (back when science was fun!) to see how they would react.

Newman’s piece turned out to be very engaging, if more gentle and dance-like than carnivorous. It was hard to escape the “under-rehearsed” feeling, though: The players were shunted to auditory Siberia on the distant left edge of the stage, the title of the wrong piece was projected over them in big letters and the music’s rhythmic difficulties — the meter seemed to shift every bar or so — required a conductor just to hold the four musicians together. The performance never really felt sure of itself, and the electricity never quite flowed.

But John Adams’s “Son of Chamber Symphony” from 2007 brought things into focus. It’s a playful title for a playful work and shares the same musical DNA as Adams’s now-classic “Chamber Symphony” of 1992, with sly references here and there to “Harmonielehre,” “Nixon in China” and other early Adams works. Brilliantly orchestrated for 15 players, “Son” is full of color and wit and an almost slapstick, cartoonish sense of movement. Conductor David Vickerman gave it a fine if rather straightforward performance, played more or less mezzo-forte from top to bottom and not as clearly delineated as you might hope, but still hugely enjoyable.

Bayolo’s “Sacred Cows” is built on the intriguing idea of using a sort of oratorio to explore the loss of religious belief. Bayolo’s own faith, he told the audience, had “evaporated in a cloud of logic” once he began to seriously study Christianity a decade ago, and “Cows” reflects a range of complex emotions from bitterness and anger to questioning regret, couched in an often jazzy, secular musical language. Not always an easy listen, and some of the text (“sacred cows make the best hamburger”) could induce cringing, but it was an unusual and provocative work nevertheless, from one of this city’s most hardworking composers.

Brookes is a freelance writer.



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