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28.2.06

Happily Stranded on the Left Bank

The cheap quip would be that whenever metronome markings are given as movement titles, you know you are in for a long evening. Alas, I was at the Left Bank Concert Series’ concert at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater last Saturday where such works as George Walker’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1979) are to be expected. And whenever modern music from that perilous time of the latter half of the 20th century doesn’t show us why modernism should be embraced (because it is so much more than a mere intellectual exercise, discarded as its listeners get older), it usually shows us why many people think differently and run away. Walker’s piece is surely not in the first category, but to be fair, it isn’t in the latter either. crotchet = 50, especially has touches that delight in their own way, crotchet = 69 has a spunky ending of considerable wit. The very opening – in quaver = 60 – seemed least digested.

Wherever Mr. Salness and Ms. Valentine’s performance wasn’t of virtuoso caliber, it was served plenty well with bounds of passion and commitment. The composer was present – which mean spirits proclaim assured trouble for the fine senses. At Ionarts we have a stern “tsk, tsk, tsk” reserved for such attitudes, but acknowledge that George Walker’s music – here or in the following song selections – is of a nature that would only have had those sharp tongues think their statement proven once more. Well, perhaps not the songs. “Softly, Blow Softly” on a D. S. Hayes poem was Walker’s (he accompanied Patricia Green himself) most recent work, and of five accessible and clever and enjoyably slight works, it was perhaps the finest. Themes and poems ranged from the cutesy (Mother Goose – ca. 2054 “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall / A nonelectromagnetic ball / All the supers’ polariscopes / Couldn’t revitalize his isotopes / His isotopes”) to the spiritual influenced, Porgy & Bess-like “Mary Wore Three Links of Chain,” which included a moment where the mentioned train’s ‘toot-tooot’ was banged out on the keyboard in hilarious manner.

I would have said that I needn’t hear “Amazing Grace” ever again after the disgrace of Fleming/O’Connor’s performance… but I’ll take that back for Curt Calioppo’s Contrapuntal Fantasy on John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1996). Shostakovich’s Preludes & Fugues, op. 87 it isn’t quite… (despite a few bars that sounded as if lifted quoted from it) but close enough to qualify an unqualified delight. Ms. Valentine’s performance must surely have met with the composer’s (yes: present) warm approval.

What else could you ask for on an innocent Saturday night but a “Cycle of Afro-American Spirituals for Voice, Percussion Quartet (!), and Amplified Piano”? Welcome to George Crumb’s booming, variously ethereal, and sometimes downright silly work. You’ll never have heard “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” like that before – with Indian camel bells, Chinese temple blocks, (international?) knitting needles, and eighty-three other percussion instruments aimed at the singer (Ms. Green – mercifully amplified within that mess of sound) from the four batteries of noise paraphernalia in the four corners of the stage. Nor with such an Asian touch “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go).” Clearly excess is part of the game plan in this work – the frenzy alone was worth watching; it had its own (un?)intended humorous effect. A fun composition, no doubt, but the real prize should go to the composition student who can inventively trim this work down to a dozen instruments and have it sound just as fine. But once again the mighty percussion instrument manufacturing complex and its lobbyists stand between this noble wish and its realization. Mr. Crumb has a tom-tom addiction… but at least he did something for otherwise New York cab-driving percussion-majoring music school graduates. The tentacled beneficiaries of his songs were Sean Harleem, Lee Hinkle, Tom Jones, and Douglas Marween. Caught in the middle were Colette Valentine (piano) and the aforementioned Ms. Green. James Ross, with only a baton to defend himself, was given the kind illusion of bringing order into designed chaos. Surprising, perhaps, amid all the commotion, how tender these songs were on more than one occasion.

The nature of the Left Bank Concert Series (LBCS) performances is such that when the LBCS Quartet performs another quartet of the standard repertoire, they do so to the expectations of ‘professional Hausmusik’… out of competition with the many top quartets that play in Washington. As such their third of the Razumovsky quartets – Beethoven’s op. 59, no. 3 – was charming, worthy and enjoyable to all but the most pitch-sensitive.

The next concert will take place on April 15th, with a program that includes music by recent Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Moravec, Ewazen, Dutilleux, Stucky, and Bartók.