- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

The Washington area's fall music scene is so dominated by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Opera that at times we fail to see its originality and diversity. Two intriguing concerts this week emphasized that point emphatically, both proving eerily in tune with the tenor of our uncertain times.

On Sunday, the National Academy of Sciences launched its 2002-2003 concert series with a stunning program presented in its 21st and C Street NW auditorium by the American String Quartet. Walking to and from the concert venue spookily silent and walled off from other streets by ubiquitous Jersey barriers meant to protect the adjacent State Department from terrorist attacks it was easy to identify with the premise of the central work on the ensemble's program, Dmitri Shostakovich's gripping Quartet No. 8 (Op. 110).

Composed in 1960 and played as one continuous movement, this is an emotionally wrenching work, arguably Mr. Shostakovich's anguished outcry against the brutalities of war and the communist regime that viciously repressed him again and again.

The quartet's pensive opening largo is ended abruptly by the driving, motorlike allegro molto, a martial movement typical of this composer that viciously lampoons the Soviet Union's mindless military and a Kafka-esque security bureaucracy. This is followed by a lighter allegretto containing brief snatches of highly acidic klezmer music, a symbolic link to the composer's overwhelming sense of loss and rejection. This Mahler-like unpleasantry leads to a brace of concluding largos, the first embracing the work's only lyrical moments, quoting a lonely tune from the composer's controversial opera, "Lady Macbeth of Mtensk." The final largo revisits some of the opening material, bringing the work to a tranquil, if troubled, conclusion.

The performance of this powerful work by the American String Quartet transported Mr. Shostakovich's music to an entirely different plane, but it wasn't just the ensemble that took it there. The soloists were aided by perhaps one of the best listening rooms in the District, a modest-size auditorium with a sprung ceiling of projecting triangular shapes that give nearly every seat in the house the sense of personal immediacy.

Those seats were inhabited by the most intelligent, serious, actively listening audience we have seen in many years. It and the musicians did a sort of Vulcan mind meld, with the latter responding with a breathtakingly visceral, definitive performance of this work. As the final notes faded, no one even breathed. Had Mr. Shostakovich been alive to hear this performance, he would have felt redeemed and vindicated. A rock concert cannot produce catharsis like this.

Bookending the Shostakovich were equally crisp, effective performances of Haydn's Quartet in F Major (Op. 50, No. 5) in a relatively new performing version that restored some of the composer's more humorous musical essays; and Maurice Ravel's shimmering and highly unusual String Quartet in F Major, his only such work. The American String Quartet performed these delightfully diverse compositions with a graciously energetic yet seemingly effortless virtuosity. The most astonishing thing about this series of concerts is that they're free of charge first come, first seated the best deal in town.

The next NAS concert will feature the Eroica Trio on Nov. 18 at 3 p.m.

On Tuesday evening at the quietly lovely St. David's Episcopal Church (5150 Macomb St. NW), the small vocal arts ensemble Festa della Voce presented an evening of contemporary American art songs. Once again, the setting seemed to reflect Washington's latest ominous preoccupation. With only about 25 persons in the audience, the concert very possibly was suffering from the fallout of the sniper's latest kill just that morning. Almost as if by design, the ensemble's program itself, wistful and mournful, frequently addressed the issues of grief and loss.

American art songs are, to say the least, not everyone's cup of tea, but Festa della Voce chose an inventive program featuring some compositional big guns and one new one. The ensemble opened the evening with Benjamin C.S. Boyle's "Lenoriana," a song cycle for baritone with piano accompaniment.

Just 23, Mr. Boyle seems somehow to have escaped academia's toxic postmodernist flotsam almost entirely, creating a tuneful work with charm, power and an occasional chilling frisson of the gothic. "Lenoriana" is a setting of several of Edgar Allen Poe's better-known poems, running the gamut from "Annabel Lee" to the gruesome "Conqueror Worm."

It is significant that Mr. Boyle chose poetry in traditional meters to set to music, a choice common to the other compositions on the program. Formal, narrative verse is still the quickest way to set a melodic hook to capture an audience and set a composition's mood. While "Lenoriana" prefers to remain comfortable rather than take major risks with its musical landscape, the composition is nonetheless winning and pleasant. The cycle was ably and touchingly sung by baritone James Rogers.

Also on the program were major song cycles by Ned Rorem, Jack Gottlieb, and Dominick Argento. Mr. Rorem and Mr. Argento are acknowledged giants of American classical music, with the former particularly renowned for his art songs. Combining a prickly modernism with occasional lyricism, Mr. Rorem's cycle, "King Midas," setting to music several strongly metrical poems of Howard Moss, proved the most effective of the two, combining a strong narrative element alternating with more tender lyricism. Tenor Peter Joshua Burroughs and soprano Mary McReynolds ably articulated the divergent male and female points of view.

Less successful was Mr. Argento's "To Be Sung upon the Waters," a setting of some of Wordsworth's most famous poems. The cycle highlighted Mr. Argento's pronounced tendency to make bombastic, empty proclamations, fully in keeping with his postmodern need to reduce a great writer's poems to mere texts requiring re-interpretation by the composer. Miss McReynolds, accompanied by Vicki Gotcher on clarinet and bass clarinet, did her best with this challenging material, although she seemed troubled at times with a dry throat, always a danger when the weather changes.

Lighter in mood, excerpts from Mr. Gottlieb's "Songs from 'yes is a pleasant country,'" set to music the surpassingly weird-but-charming poetry of e. e. cummings. Playful, even a little sappy including cute vocal fricatives from accompanist Kathryn Brake in "If freckles were lovely" all were sung by a knowing Mr. Burroughs, who clearly reveled in the composer's irreverent, tonal treatment of this most underrated of traditional American poets.

The entire entourage sang Mr. Rorem's recent "The Rainbow" based on another Wordsworth poem as an encore.

All in all this was a comprehensive evening of American song in a beautiful, peaceful, acoustically intimate venue. If you're open to new or relatively new American music, the program will be repeated tomorrow at St. David's. For more information call 202/432-SEAT, 410/481-SEAT or 703/573-SEAT.

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