This review is an Ionarts exclusive.
The National Gallery of Art takes the "national" part of its title, as well as its federal funding, seriously. The museum regularly focuses on American artists, as in the Looking In: Robert Frank's "The Americans" currently showing in a ground-floor gallery of the West Building, and in conjunction with it, the music department's 63rd American Music Festival, with a series of free lunchtime concerts on Wednesdays in March. The festival's third concert, this past Wednesday, was also announced as a nod to Women's History Month, as it featured Washington-born composer and pianist Jessica Krash playing a new work, as well as a recent string quartet by another woman composer, Chia Patiño.
Obstructed View: New Works for Solo Piano, J. Krash
Krash, who did her doctoral work at the University of Maryland and now teaches at George Washington University, opened the concert with John Cage's early, surprisingly not so crazy piano piece In a Landscape, a study for sustaining pedal. Cage tailored the work for a performance by dancer Louis Lippold, the wife of a fellow Black Mountain College professor. That parallel to Voiles, from Debussy's first book of preludes, dedicated to the modern dancer Loïe Fuller, combined with the harmonic stasis of the work are a Cagean tribute to Debussy. Compared to the performance of the piece by Francesco Tristano Schlimé last fall at La Maison Française, which I described as "a sotto voce Zen murmur," Krash's performance was clumsy and pedestrian, with a few finger slips and a musical sameness, not quite monotony, that rendered the piece more pretty than mysterious.
The meat of the program (.PDF file) was a second performance of Krash's new piano quintet Be Seeing You, composed in 2008 and premiered at a concert with the National Gallery of Art String Quartet at the National Museum of Women in the Arts last week. The piece is a series of vignettes inspired by fourteen paintings of women in the collections of the National Gallery and NMWA, projected onto the back wall (links to thirteen of them shown above), as Krash puts it, exploring "fourteen ways of being [...] in a sequence that seemed musical, so the listener takes a path through changes of purview and momentum." It is not likely that this piece will become as widely beloved as its obvious model, Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, seemed less inclined or able to evoke musical images, focusing instead on abstractions from her imagined re-conception of the subject of each artwork ("while Fragonard might see a woman on a swing as delicious fluff," she writes in her program comments, "I like to think she's also worried about the global economy"). It is certainly not as easy to capture in tone painting as the churning wheels of a cart pulled by enormous oxen, although the final movement, devoted to Fragonard's famous intrigue painting, does have an oscillating 'swing' motif.
Mme Amédée Seymour Giotto Goncharova Laserstein Cherries Lorette Ginevra Green Cap Capricorn Frida Valadon Swing
The members of the NGA String Quartet seemed a little at sea rhythmically in the less regularly metered passages, like the first movement, making the predominant feeling of several of the movements more chaotic and unsettled than anything else. High points were the plaintive melody in the first violin in the third movement, the Stravinsky-live primitivism of the fourth, the jazzy idiom of the ninth (Katz's Green Cap), and the pulsating pace of the tenth (Capricorn). Without Krash the NGA Quartet sounded much more at ease in the string quartet by Ecuadorian-born Chia Patiño, Wild Swans, premiered here in Washington in 2005. Based on the poem of that name by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the work calls for swan-like calls and squawks in microtonal bends and glissandi, heard in the somewhat bleak opening of harmonics and dissonant drones, evoking a sunless sky. That theme is contrasted with more melodic, quasi-tonal passages, in a minimalist film-score style, and rhythmically animated passages with a dance-like, almost Latin verve. The work reached a climax, a hammered theme in emphatic unison, before arching back to the opening theme of calling swans. A touch of this sort of imagery could have made Krash's work more effective.
The New York Chamber Soloists will give the final free concert of the 63rd American Music Festival, performing music by Berger, Persichetti, Piston, and Powell next Wednesday (March 25, 12:10 pm) in the West Building Lecture Hall. The next free concert at the National Gallery of Art will feature the Egidius Kwartet, a vocal quartet from the Netherlands, performing music of Byrd, Dowland, Gastoldi, and other composers this Sunday (March 22, 6:30 pm).
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.