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28.10.08

21st Century Consort Hams It Up

The 21st Century Consort does the city of Washington a great service by taking risks in programming contemporary music and putting together a team of fine musicians, many from the National Symphony Orchestra, to perform it well. One can rarely argue that the new works performed by the ensemble do not get a fair hearing in the best light. All the more certain, then, that when works fail in this setting, it is because they are failures. Much of the first concert of the group's new season, on Saturday afternoon at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, unfortunately fell into that category. The program, ostensibly devoted to the scares of the season, both Halloween and the U.S. presidential election, was an overlong and oppressively cutesy affair that felt like a tour of mediocrity.

Arguably, the concert's high point was in the second half, the zany song cycle Frankenstein!! by former Vienna Choir boy H. K. Gruber. We managed to avoid it when Marin Alsop programmed it for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last October, with the composer himself conducting and performing the solo narration, the goofy but macabre poems of H. C. Artmann. This was the composer's alternative version for chamber ensemble, including kazoos, slide whistles, sirens, and other toys. It is an often whimsical, brightly colored, ultra-personal work, a sort of musical counterpart to the phenomenon of art brut or visionary art, if only by appearances, since Gruber is very much an academically trained composer. It has the same sort of earnest simplicity, going against the expectations of modern music by embracing the most basic structures, harmonic and formal. It was well performed, with a mock-serious solo part from baritone Peter Becker, but I hope never to sit through the work again.

A miniature by Charles Ives, Hallowe'en, came across like a different type of defiance of modernism, capping off a pseudo-academic contrapuntal exercise with a vulgar marching band cadence, complete with bass drum. Kathryn Alexander's And the Whole Air Was Tremulous, inspired by a passage in Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room, recapitulated the space-music sounds of every other avant-garde work for solo flute, this time combining the fine flutist Sara Stern with a recording of the composer on several flutes mixed together. Jon Deak's Lucy and the Count, a comic Dracula interlude for string quintet, would be perfect for a children's concert. A performance piece described as a "choreography" was a cringe-worthy series of pratfalls followed by a seemingly improvised stand-up routine. What happened to the works by Eric Moe (Three Ways to Relieve Tension) and Mark Kuss (Fear, planned as a world premiere) that were originally announced? One can only assume that much of this program, as it was actually performed, was slapped together to replace pieces that had to be withdrawn for some reason.

The next program offered by the 21st Century Consort, Natural Affinities (December 6, 5 pm), looks much more promising, with music by Copland, Saariaho, Joan Tower, and Augusta Read Thomas.

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