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20.10.04

New Sounds over the Potomac: The Left Bank Concert Society is Here!

This article appeared first in the Washington Post (Left Bank Concert Society, October 18).

If beauty is still anathema to serious modern classical music, the Inaugural Concert of the Left Bank Concert Society at the Terrace Theater was a complete failure. Founded to foster and perform living composers' works in juxtaposition with works that influenced them, it featured Luciano Berio's surprisingly sweet 1986 Naturale as its first piece. Inspired by and using (via tape) traditional Italian folksongs in local dialects with running viola commentary (Katherine Murdock), it also featured a variety of percussion instruments including the biggest, baddest marimba I have ever seen—all played by the seemingly four-armed and eight-handed Lawson White.

Those fearing Stockhausen- or Boulez-like difficult music at the reading of their fellow post-World War II composer Berio (who died just last year) need not have worried. With its folksong relations it had obvious parallels to Bartók, and while undeniably modern, it is also extraordinarily (given the genre) accessible. Anyone mistaking the Italian songs for Middle Eastern calls of a muezzin could have been forgiven.

Apparently flutists are either very grateful or very desperate for new music, given the amount of work written for solo flute. The flutists Marina Piccinini (talented and gorgeous in equal measure) played Nicholas Maw's (of Odyssey fame) 1982 Night Thoughts. In his own preconcert talk admission, he hopes that his work sounds "not good, played on any other instrument," naturally sparking my curiosity. At least in the imaginary versions for bass tuba or kettledrum I wager to say that he is right. With flute, though, it was downright pretty.

Michael Mauldin's Birds in Winter preludes for solo harp, a luscious and very enjoyable work played impeccably by Astrid Walschot-Stapp, was the last contemporary piece before Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp and the Beethoven "Harp" Quartet (op. 74) took over. The Debussy brought the soloists (save for Mr. White) all together, if to a slightly lesser effect than the sum of its parts would have suggested.

The Left Bank Quartet—consisting of the artistic directors, Evelyn Elsing (cello), David Salness (first violin), Katherine Murdock, again, and Sally McLain—performed the Beethoven string quartet amiably and clearly enjoyed their musicmaking. For someone who had just come off two hours of Gewandhaus-orchestrated Brahms, the Left Bank Concert was a wonderful cleansing of the musical palate.

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