We tend to be a little buttoned down here in Washington — our suit-to-hipster ratio is a zillion to one, at last count — so outsiders are sometimes surprised to find that the District has one of the most interesting and adventurous contemporary music scenes on the East Coast.
Part of the credit goes to the Great Noise Ensemble, a virtuosic outfit that — in a must-hear series at the Atlas Performing Arts Center over the past year — has showcased more than a dozen rising young American composers and revealed some spectacular talent.
That talent was amply on display at the series’s closing concert Friday night. Shawn Jaeger’s “Poor and Wretched,” which opened the program, was inspired by an arcane form of hymn singing, used by Appalachian Baptist congregations, in which the chorus freely echoes a leader rather than precisely following a score. “I wanted to capture the complexity, rawness and honesty” of that music, Jaeger told the audience.
“Poor” proved to be a luminous piece that treated the instrumental ensemble much like a chorus, united in a loosely flowing, soft-edged sort of hymn, full of the natural inflections and patterns of human speech. There may have been more calculated inexactness to the music than raw spontaneity, and it never quite captured the ecstatic quality of the original singing. But the work’s warmth and quiet beauty were often deeply moving.
It’s just a coincidence — a happy one — that the new “Great Gatsby” film has appeared at the same time as “Letters From Zelda,” in which Sean Doyle sets to music the letters written to F. Scott Fitzgerald by his wife. Penned by a woman who was extraordinary in every way, Zelda’s letters range from her love-struck days in the 1920s to her final years in a sanatorium two decades later, suffering from bipolar disorder. It’s rich material, and Doyle’s vivid, eventful score captured the intensity and hyper-articulate confusion that run through the letters — the music of a poetic mind slowly falling apart. Brilliantly written, full of the anything-goes spirit of the Jazz Age, “Letters” captured the shimmering highs and bleak lows of Zelda’s life, and soprano Lisa Perry (valiantly holding her own over a large and exuberant ensemble) brought a fine, delicately unhinged edge to the music.
Daniel Felsenfeld calls his “Revolutions of Ruin” a kind of “road oratorio” about adolescence and the path to adulthood. It’s a journey we’ve all made, and Felsenfeld taps into the intensity, anguish, self-absorption and inner turmoil we endure in forging our identities. But “Revolutions” isn’t some pat coming-of-age story — it resolves not into self-knowledge but into a full-fledged adolescent power fantasy, awash in apocalyptic blood lust (towns burn, heads are dashed, the rich are torn limb from limb) and a kind of glorious solipsism. The fine baritone Joshua Brown joined Perry for the lead roles in this remarkable (and musically gorgeous) epic, with support from the HexaCollective vocal ensemble.
Brookes is a freelance writer.