Either/Or offers a mixed night of modern works at Library of Congress

Sun Feb 19, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Taka Kigawa performed a selection of Ligeti Etudes in the EIther/Or concert Saturday at the Library of Congress. File photo: Mark Shelby Perry

Either/Or, the contemporary music ensemble based in New York, took the stage of the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium on Saturday night. Like most concerts offering recent music of the dissonant and experimental kind, it alternately perplexed, tickled, or infuriated. Never underestimate music’s power to get under the skin or bore to tears.

The oldest music on the program, a selection of Ligeti’s Etudes, has become a classic. Pianist Taka Kigawa played down the virtuosic challenges of these five pieces, going heavy on the soft-pedal and searching out instead their musicality of phrasing. The rolling upward scales in “Fanfares,” shifted back and forth between hands, remained always pliant and subservient to the fanfare melody.

In “Fém” Kigawa maintained keen interest even in the crunchy ostinato patterns, with glowing Messiaen-like multi-colored chords in the middle section. Louder gestures burst out in the jumbling falling motif of “Automne à Varsovie,” crashing to its conclusion at the bottom of the keyboard, as well as in the wild ride of “L’escalier du diable.” In between came the wistful, hovering sounds of mostly open chords in “Cordes vides.”

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s  lived up to its name, an Icelandic word meaning serenity, in an atmospheric performance that went nowhere, in the best sense. In a slow and steady tempo, conducted by Richard Carrick, sounds and textures from string quartet, bass clarinet, and piano morphed into one another, giving the impression of ice melting. Margaret Lancaster produced a breathy, enigmatic tone on the bass flute, an ethereal presence matched by percussionist Russell Greenberg, whisking his hands over the gong and bass drum or crinkling paper.

Anthony Braxton, named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2014, writes music that he describes as an “erector set.” His Composition No. 222, from the set Ghost Trance Musics, was scored specifically for violin and piano, but he encourages performers to mix and match, combining pieces or parts simultaneously. Violinist Jennifer Choi and pianist Richard Carrick began in a unison texture but slowly split apart into different worlds, looking up at each other periodically to coordinate the switch to the next section of music. The quasi-improvisatory freedom of the piece, as well as its rhythmic vivacity and variety, engaged the ear.

In La scène miniature, Richard Carrick has attempted a depiction of the murder scene in Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Flute and piano opened with a repetitive tonality-bending theme by flutist Margaret Lancaster. Cellist John Popham and bass clarinetist Vasko Dukovski responded with high notes that grew eventually into savage growls. The two sides of this odd-couple quartet exchanged ideas in intriguing ways before this odd piece came to its unexpected end, as the bass clarinet shrieked upward in a final howl.

The infuriating part of the evening came in two trying pieces by Beat Furrer, the Austrian composer who directs the contemporary music ensemble Klangforum Wien. In both works the musicians skillfully sustained a repetitive, mostly dissonant texture for an excruciating length. Spur, written for piano and string quartet in 1998, has the piano’s octave ostinato as a sort of pedal point underpinning a plethora of nearly pitchless sounds from the strings, yet is undone by an eye-glazing sameness.

In the more recent Intorno al bianco, composed for clarinet and string quartet last year, the instruments clustered around a single pitch that shifted under the effort of distortions — tremolos, vibrato, pitch-bending, glissandi — creating the sensation of the auditory beats of dissonance. Dukovski, now on B-flat clarinet, began by hiding within the sound of the string quartet on long notes, which gradually emerged from the cloud to ear-piercing effect. The primary sensation at the conclusion of the piece was relief.

The next free concert at the Library of Congress features the Hagen Quartet playing string quartets by Schubert, Shostakovich, and Brahms 8 p.m. March 3. loc.gov/concerts.

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