21st Century Consort program spans the spectrum at St. Mark’s Church

Sun Dec 05, 2021 at 11:53 am

21st Century Consort performed Saturday night at St. Mark’s Church. File photo: Tony Powell

Music is an abstract art. Composers can relate their work to non-musical ideas, but there is no guarantee that listeners will hear those associations without being informed of them by other means. The 21st Century Consort explored this idea with a program of music inspired by colors in their latest concert Saturday evening at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. The event was free to all listeners who wore a mask and presented proof of Covid vaccination.

Clarinetist Paul Cigan, a member of the National Symphony Orchestra like all six musicians featured on this program, opened the evening with Eric Moe’s Grand Prismatic. The composer, a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh, drew inspiration from the hot spring of that name in Yellowstone National Park. The spring is known for the chemical rainbow of colors produced by microorganisms, which somehow survive in the varying degrees of boiling water.

Cigan mastered the extremes of range in the piece, from off-the-staff shrieks to the chalumeau depths heard in some of the slower sections. Pianist Lisa Emenheiser supplied seemingly endless repeated-note motifs, harshest in the faster sections, where they were often accompanied by jagged clusters of dissonance. Moments of calm beauty emerged as the intensity of the piece cooled, ending with scales rising upward into the ether like wisps of steam.

Cellist Rachel Young joined her colleagues for Blackberries by Elena Ruehr, who drew the title from a poem by her ten-year-old daughter. Printed in the program, the poem describes the vivid burst of flavor and color from a blackberry picked and eaten surreptitiously. The trio mostly sustained one musical character, an animated piano pattern overlaid by intertwined lines from clarinet and piano, with whiffs of multimetric whimsy that evoked Bernstein.

Violist Daniel Foster and horn player James Nickel joined Cigan and Emenheiser for the last two movements of Luke Carlson’s quartet Spectra, each associated with a particularly vibrant color. “Zaffre,” a deep cobalt blue, contrasted the piano in its far treble register with soft, low sounds from the clarinet, viola, and horn. As the piece progressed and grew louder, the melding of the three non-keyboard instruments yielded fascinating timbres.

The piece’s finale, “Carmine,” was much faster, in keeping perhaps with the bright red named in the title. The three instruments surged on active lines, accented often by stings from the piano. Nickel’s playing on the horn was especially agile and accurate, a remarkable display of the polished range of the modern French horn, far from its origins as an uncouth outdoor instrument.

In the middle section of the program, three short pieces spotlighted solo instruments. Rachel Young performed amid fleeting pockets of billowing radiance, a daunting work for solo cello by Jeffrey Mumford, a Washington, D.C. native. Much of the piece called for complex double-stops, a web of challenges Young negotiated skillfully and with artful phrasing, losing some surety of intonation only in the far upper register.

Daniel Foster effortlessly tamed the virtuosic challenges of David Froom’s solo viola work Shades of Red, in three movements evoking the colors of flame or heat. Deftly executed running passages marked the first movement (“red hot”), with impeccably tuned double-stops intensely luminescing in the second movement (“darkly glowing”). The motifs of the first movement returned in the brief finale, now muted as if recalled in a ghostly memory (“like wisps of smoke from dying embers”).

Firebrand violinist Alexandra Osborne next stormed her way through Alexandra Gardner’s Electric Blue Pantsuit, a vivid piece in which the violin’s quicksilver flourishes are answered by electronic scratches and noises. Alexandra the composer alluded to historical violin virtuoso escapades with passages reminiscent of Vivaldi or Appalachian fiddling, all handled with aplomb by Alexandra the violinist, with the dream-like electronic sounds pulling the listener into a different century.

This ingenious program concluded with Jennifer Higdon’s Piano Trio, in which two movements are associated with the two colors in the subtitle, “Pale Yellow, Fiery Red.” The first movement featured Higdon at her most open-hearted and sentimental, with misty piano harmonies supporting unabashedly beautiful melodic lines for cello and violin. Osborne and Young overlapped ideally, with a few intonation shortcomings in the top register.

The second movement bristled with a violent, acidic edge, giving the end of the concert an air of menace worthy of Prokofiev or Shostakovich. Emenheiser walloped the towering piano part with admirable force, at times overwhelming the furiously fast lines from Osborne and Young.

This intense virtuosic display, along with the preceding solo work, served as an apt send-off for Alexandra Osborne, who will be returning to her native Australia. Artistic director Christopher Kendall announced the news with an eloquent speech, followed by a more emotional tribute from Rachel Young. To their outpourings of thanks should be added the heartfelt gratitude of all listeners who have heard her during her time in Washington.

The 21st Century Consort will perform music by Tarkianen, Montgomery, Simon, Skrowaczewksi, and Coleman, plus the world premiere of Stephen Jaffe’s Trio, 5 p.m. February 5, 2022. 21stcenturyconsort.org

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