If you needed an indication that change is coming to the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts — now in its 41st season at the Kennedy Center — the centerpiece of Monday night’s So Percussion performance at the Terrace Theater should have done the trick.
Using bows, strings, chopsticks and mallets, the ensemble of Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting performed a precise sequence of musical procedures: flossing the strings of a viola with a long cord or yanking it out like the rope start of a lawn mower; twanging a stick lodged in the cello’s bridge; softly caressing the back of the violin like a gassy baby.
As I type this, I’m realizing that this list of abuses might, on paper, sound like an exercise in pure gimmickry — i.e., Cirque du So Percussion. But in person, an entire sound world unfurled: entrancing spells of knocking rhythms, toothy scrapes and pointed tones that hung over the hall like glassy icicles.
Taken together, it was disconcertingly folkloric — the busy frenzy onstage conjuring the scrub of fiddles and stomp of clogs, the crackle of fire of the surface of a river, the foreboding churn of distant machinery. How did they do that?
As an installment in the Fortas, the inclusion of So Percussion aligns with a broader redefinition of what “chamber music” can sound like. On Monday night, it simply sounded like sound — and it was an experiment with profoundly mixed results.
The evening doubled as a celebration of the life and legacy of pianist Joseph “Yossi” Kalichstein, who died of pancreatic cancer last year after 25 years as Fortas’s artistic director.
But it also offered an opportunity for Kennedy Center programming director Kevin Struthers to pass the baton to the series’ new artistic director, violinist Jennifer Koh.
Although Koh didn’t organize the So performance (a postponement from the dashed 2020-2021 season), she certainly could have. In addition to being a talented violinist with an voracious musical appetite, Koh is a fierce advocate for new music and living composers. Her “Alone Together” project was one of the first responders among micro-commissioning initiatives at the outset of the pandemic.
And So cuts a different attitude onstage than the usual chamber group. They are performers who lean into the performing part, unafraid to elicit giggles and untimely applause, sculptural in their approach to objects and staging, and unshy about demonstrating their chops and innovations.
Both were on full display in the duo of opening pieces by Negrón, “Gone” and “Go Back.” Each piece requires the four performers to interact with specially designed robotic instruments designed by the Brooklyn-artist Nick Yulman.
The combination of triggered samples, mechanically struck objects and So’s unlikely arsenal of tools (e.g. birdcalls and bells, chimes dunked in water, pots and pans, bowed marimba tines) made for a thrillingly inventive sonic palette, and Negrón’s wryly controlled composition of colors and rhythms was arresting and evocative. Yulman’s modules sat on small tables, rhythmically sparking like little pilot lights and pulsing against small drums in conversation with their human counterparts.
Most of the excitement in the sold-out room was built up for the show’s second half, an appearance by composer and singer Caroline Shaw, whose Pulitzer-winning “Partita for 8 Voices” raised her work with vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth to international acclaim.
I’m accustomed to hearing Shaw in the context of other voices, but on “Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part,” an album-length collaboration between Shaw and So released by Nonesuch in 2021 and presented Monday, her voice is the living thing, the shoot through the titular soil.
Most times I’ve heard Shaw sing, her voice was a smooth, unadorned ribbon of sound, given to elastic leaps, slopes and decorative warbles. But on Monday she sounded strained, pulled tighter than saltwater taffy.
One reason for this was the presentation of the piece, which felt sonically overblown throughout. A full drum kit toward the rear of the stage overwhelmed the room with its boomy kick, its volume urging everything else around it upward into rock show territory. Everything was amplified, but little could be heard.
Shaw pulls from an assortment of texts for her words: James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” an Anne Carson poem, hymns from “The Sacred Harp,” passages from the Bible and a variety of American music (from “I’ll Fly Away” to the cover of John Fogerty’s “Long As I Can See the Light” that served as an encore). I’m sure there are lush subtleties to be heard when she juliennes her voice into thick, synthetic chords via vocoder, but so much of her performance was lost in the mix.
But acoustics weren’t entirely to blame. Ideally, collaborations like this bring out the best in each collaborator. But too often, the songs come across like an ensemble and a composer chronically getting out of each other’s way — to the point that little gets created beyond a color story. Ultimately, the collaboration feels mutually subtractive.
Though Shaw has the kind of melodic penmanship that makes you want to keep reading, many of the songs from “Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part” default to pop structures long trodden pavement-hard — not exactly fertile soil for experiment. Too many of them rely on strategies such as frenzied buildup! or sudden cutoff! or gradually peter out!
Most of the music centers on Shaw murmuring repetitive little melodic eddies, spacing out carefully crafted syllables or stretching them into long contrails while the ensemble tinkers helpfully along. And while the hyper-minimal cover is a battle-tested strategy that has well served many an “American Idol” contestant, a comically sparse and perplexing slow steel drum plod through ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love on Me” (with recorded backing vocals, no less) fell flat.
So did its best to re-energize the “scene” of each song, but I’ve seen the “four guys playing the same drum kit” bit a thousand times in rock clubs. And as compelling a composer and vocalist as Shaw is, she appeared throughout a touch unmoored, drifting around the stage as if unsure of the show’s true shape.
Such is a side effect of defying expectations — you proceed to a place where they are yours to make. And although there’s nothing wrong with pushing “chamber music” to new frontiers, generally speaking I would prefer to leave my earplugs at home.
An earlier version of this review misstated a song title. The song is "Long as I Can See the Light," not "Put a Candle in the Window.” The review has been corrected.