Washington Arts Ensemble flourishes with new downtown series

Fri Dec 16, 2022 at 11:25 am

Natalia Kazaryan performed music of Bach and Messiaen in Washington Arts Ensemble’s concert Thursday night at the Arts Club of Washington. Photo: Ryan Brandenberg

While some established arts organizations struggled to survive the coronavirus lockdowns, other new ones found their niche. Washington Arts Ensemble, founded in 2021 just before the Omicron wave of the pandemic, took a gamble on live performance and continues to thrive. The latest in its series of monthly concerts took place Thursday night in the intimate performance space of the Arts Club of Washington.

Anecdotal reports from presenters and listeners around the Washington area indicate that attendance at classical music events has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels. It seems likely that a small series may have an edge over its larger competitors, by keeping costs low and operations flexible. The venue’s parlor, named after the building’s most famous occupant, President James Monroe, seats only about 90 people.

The group’s founders, pianists Natalia Kazaryan and Christopher Schmitt, each presided over a program half. The ensemble’s events feature receptions with wine and food before and after the performance. This was a controversial choice when the group launched, just as some organizations were canceling live events again, but the audience was primed and enthusiastic, especially when given spoken program notes about the pieces by both pianists.

Kazaryan played the music of two composers, Bach and Messiaen, who were deeply religious men. Although the theme of the program was about finding spiritual meaning behind the music, the first piece, Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 2, has no overt religious connotation. Of the two pianists, Kazaryan had the upper hand in terms of subtlety, with a delicate touch providing a range of colors and dynamics in the opening Sinfonia.

Minimal use of the sustaining pedal kept the contrapuntal elements of the piece clear, and liberal rubato prevented the interpretation from becoming overly metronomic. The Allemande and Sarabande had a more quiet, introspective quality than the outgoing Courante. Greater variation and ornamentation would have distinguished the repeats of sections throughout the suite, but the clean, rollicking approach to the brisk final movements proved thrilling.

The highlight of the evening was two movements from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. With Christmas coming in a fortnight, it seemed strange not to choose the joyful clangor of the thirteenth movement (“Noël”) and the specifically Nativity-themed movements that follow it. Kazaryan described her first selection, the tenth movement (“Regard de l’Esprit de joie”) as a sort of mountain she had to climb in her pianistic technique.

She gave the main theme, which Messiaen described as an “oriental and plainchant-like dance,” a spiky quality, accenting the violent chords that interrupted it. Dissonant, hand-spanning chords cascaded wildly up and down the keyboard, in what the composer called a “transport of joy.” The “God theme” that ends this movement carried over into the eleventh movement (“Première communion de la vierge”), placid chords punctuated by long silences and atonal bird calls.

Christopher Schmitt opted to omit his planned movement from Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia, cutting short a program that had a slightly delayed start. With cellist Joseph Gotoff and violinist Julia Angelov, he concluded the concert with a vociferous rendition of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2. Fast tempos tended to push the music to the limits, and Schmitt’s heavy hand at the keyboard dominated the string players with an excess of intensity and volume that overwhelmed the small room.

In spite of some intonation disagreements, Gotoff and Angelov paired melodiously in the slow movement, though the hectic pacing of the Scherzo clouded the clarity of whirring fast notes. In the finale Mendelssohn’s quotation of the chorale tune “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ,” which justified the work’s inclusion on this religious program, imposed some much-needed calm, especially when Angelov took up the tune and soared over her colleagues.

Washington Arts Ensemble presents a song recital by mezzo-soprano Chrystal Williams and pianist Natalia Kazaryan 6:30 p.m. January 28, 2023. washingtonartsensemble.org

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