The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Direct Current festival is about new things. But sometimes it forgets to tell the audience.

The National Symphony Orchestra premiered Lera Auerbach’s “Arctica” on Saturday at the Kennedy Center. (Tracey Salazar)
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“Dream, dream, dream, vision, vision, wind, wind,” sang the chorus in Inuit languages, with crashing, primal force. Beneath them, a piano soloist rocked and the orchestra crashed like breaking waves. It was the epitome of Romantic effusions; it was brand-new work. It was the world premiere Saturday of “Arctica” by Lera Auerbach, the National Symphony Orchestra’s contribution to the Kennedy Center’s Direct Current festival.

Direct Current seeks to bring a new wind to the Kennedy Center. The arts center is no stranger to new work, but it isn’t exactly known as a bastion of the new, either. Both those things were reflected in some musical performances during the festival’s first week: It brought in artists, like Auerbach, who have performed here before, but it also showcased work that didn’t always connect.

Contemporary music, more than many new art forms, requires a context to really resonate with an audience. On Saturday in the early evening, the ensemble Hypercube and the Iranian Female Composers’ Association presented work by six Iranian women. The works were sometimes compelling, opening with the jarring chords of “Tide” by Aida Shirazi, for prepared piano, and continuing with the long theatrical “Moving Surfaces III/Another Birth” by Anahita Abbasi. This piece was the longest explicit exploration of a theme that ran through all six works — the struggle to make oneself heard over obstacles. A saxophonist blew hard into her instrument, but without a mouthpiece; a pianist thunked on the strings, yielding choked chords that fell silently to the ground. Bunches of leaves rustled; wooden chimes thudded together with shards of sound.

But works about challenges to expression may have trouble expressing themselves. A few in the Millennium Stage audience simply left, as if unable to find the point in the gentle constellations of sounds (rustling leaves, grasped clusters of wooden wind chimes) trying to make themselves heard.

The disconnect between new music and new audience is so great that some composers miss clear opportunities to breach the walls. Another festival showpiece was “When We Lost Our Shadows,” an ambitious video opera about migration by Du Yun.

The piece was inspired by and featured videos by the Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar, who traveled with a refugee family from Syria to Germany; there were snippets of interviews with children and young adults about their journey. But much of the footage was unclear, and the audience had no way of knowing — there was no program note — that the images of nighttime treks or that the blurred lights that kept appearing unsteadily in the middle of the screen were actually part of a real journey the filmmaker took. They became merely background to the emphatic, busy, thoughtful but ultimately unfocused music.

The soloists were remarkable: Ali Sethi, trained in Pakistani Indian classical music, sang ragas while Helga Davis offered Western-trained sound that came off as more primal and raw, and Shayna Dunkelman thwacked mightily on her drums. Joseph Young led the Peabody Modern Orchestra with clarity and aplomb. Yet all of these strong ingredients obscured the message, just as the film lit on pomegranate seeds, piling atop each other, as a metaphor for migration, a greeting-card image that undercut the power of the footage of the journey. If this is a video opera, give us character and feeling, not generalities.

“Arctica,” by contrast, did connect. For the piece, co-commissioned by the National Geographic Society, Auerbach traveled to the north and spent extensive time with the Inuit peoples, learning the language and writing the libretto herself. She also took the piano solo of this extravagant oratorio-concerto.

The piece was the second half of a program devoted to nature-inspired music, with pieces by Dvorak, Sibelius and Mason Bates, energetically and somewhat jerkily led by Teddy Abrams in his NSO debut, whose forte was his spoken introduction about how the program was put together.

At intermission, a video in the lobby set the tone, depicting icebergs, melting ice, an Inuit man on a dog sled, snow scattering over his face — themes that were continued in the hall with the recorded sound of dripping water.

The music picked up on the illustrative tone, using orchestra, chorus and piano like big blocks of sea ice, while the libretto took everyone on an epic journey of some epic sort. I found it all ponderous and self-important, but there is no question that the audience felt it was getting a kind of thing it knew, on a big scale, in a way it liked to hear it. And more power to the NSO for devoting 40 minutes of a program to a new work.

There’s a lot more to Direct Current, which is a multidisciplinary festival, than the four music concerts I saw. But for my money, the most successful one is the one that’s “cooked” the longest: Gabriel Kahane’s performance based on his recording “The Book of Travelers,” a look at the United States from the perspective of a train journey across the country. One reason it worked so well is that Kahane avoided self-importance, stripping the performance to a simple one-man show with guitar and piano, without the video he had intended, and interleaving the album songs with some of his other pieces, including works based on personal ads on Craigslist and a couple of settings of posts on Twitter.

His songs, like his presentation, were direct, eloquent, understated and communicative. And his performance, at the end of a long album tour, was a reminder that new work can take time to settle in.

Direct Current Through April 7 at the Kennedy Center.