21st Century Consort offers an ingenious Christmas program from Thomas to Crumb

Sun Dec 22, 2019 at 1:14 pm
Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales alternated with musical selections in the 21st Century Consort’s program Saturday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

Christmas is a season of longed-for reunions among family and friends, but it can also be a time of loneliness and depression. 

Both joy and bleakness came across in a many-layered concert by the 21st Century Consort, presented on the cold night of Saturday’s winter solstice. The venue, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, has become the ensemble’s new home after its forced departure from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Conceived in the form of a Lessons and Carols service, the program alternated musical selections with portions of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Welsh actress and professor Gillian Eaton read this masterpiece of prose nostalgia with delicious phrasing. The text’s themes of snow, children’s pranks, a small fire in a neighbor’s house, and Christmas presents found corresponding musical ideas performed by the chamber music-sized consort, consisting of musicians who also perform in the National Symphony Orchestra.

After Thomas’s account of throwing snowballs at cats in the yard came the “Presto tenebroso” movement from Stanisław Skrowaczewski’s Musica a Quattro. Clarinetist Paul Cigan skittered darkly with violinist Alexandra Osborne, violist Daniel Foster, and cellist Rachel Young. Intonation, ensemble unity, and the live acoustic lined up ideally. Osborne returned with pianist Lisa Emenheiser for the spirited Firehose Reel by Evan Chambers, a moto perpetuo of impressive panache that captured the chaos of Thomas’s fire scene.

Likewise Thomas’s idealization of the snowy Welsh winter (“It snowed and snowed”) was met with a shadowy rendition of Snow and Snow by Scottish composer Helen Grime. Swirling motifs from wintry clarinet and viola mixed with the more insistent piano, the sunlight fading as the longest night of the year took hold.

The ringing of bells, which children hear inside themselves, as Thomas put it, went with an arrangement of Pete Seeger’s The Bells of Rhymney by Jeff Kempskie, performed by his St. Mark’s Chancel Choir. The connection here was Welsh, as Seeger was setting to music a poem by Welsh miner Idris Davies. Solo singers began the piece, voicing the accusatory calls of bells from towns around Wales. If intonation and sectional blend were sometimes lacking, the mix of amateur and professional voices gave a rustic authenticity.

At the center of the concert was the silence of Christmas night, first described by the saccharine yet sincere Silent Night setting of Welsh choral composer Paul Mealor. Only a hint of the customary tune appears in this piece, toward the end of each stanza, but the same lilting meter and major tonality felt comfortable and familiar.

The despair of the same lonely night came in Lisa Emenheiser’s authoritative interpretation of George Crumb’s Eine kleine Mitternacht Musik. A piano etude of extended techniques, the 2001 work takes Thelonious Monk’s ’Round MIdnight, a marquee American tune, as its melodic and harmonic basis. Emenheiser expertly negotiated the work’s palette of buzzing plucked strings, gentle knocks on the sounding board with a percussion mallet, and spectral overtones.

The effect of this music live goes far beyond what can be recorded. In the parody of Debussy’s problematic prelude Golliwog’s Cakewalk, the love potion theme from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde slithered among a wash of other sounds. At the climax of the piece Emenheiser counted off the stroke of Italian midnight, reminiscent of the Herne’s Oak scene in Verdi’s Falstaff, culminating in a creepy, whispered “mezzanotte.”

For the rest of the program the mood lightened. Thomas’s ode to Christmas presents introduced Eine kleine Kleinmusik: Violoncelletude by California-born composer David Froom. The piece gurgled with restless energy, proceeding from a tremolo to more complicated interplay of notes, the bow of cellist Rachel Young bouncing across the strings. The “Presto” movement from Skrowaczewski’s Musica a Quattro echoed the otherworldly vision of Thomas’s sinister double.

Finally Thomas’s walk by the snowy sea had ….slate, blue-gray by Welsh composer Hilary Tann as its companion, a piano trio that began with longing lines interwoven between cello and violin. After Thomas’s whimsical account of Christmas tea came a last choral piece, Ubi caritas by Paul Mealor, composed for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Thomas’s concluding memories capped off the experience, as the boy in Wales “said some words to the close and holy darkness” and then fell asleep.

The 21st Century Consort returns to St. Mark’s 5 p.m. February 22, in a program on the theme of time with music by Ligeti, Currier, Carter, and Messiaen. 21stcenturyconsort.org

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