Violinist Leila Josefowicz (photo
by Deborah O'Grady)
O. Knussen, Violin Concerto, L. Josefowicz, BBC Symphony Orchestra (Live at the Proms 2007)
As heard last night, these four pieces -- all but one of them composed in the 21st century and none lasting longer than 20 minutes -- gave the impression of a program of overtures, a little more than an hour's worth of music, which created a pleasing impression but actually introduced nothing. It says something about the way that new orchestral music is generally commissioned to fit into mainstream orchestral programs, leading to a preponderance of short character works and leaving few opportunities for new works on the scale of a Mahler symphony, for example. British composer Julian Anderson's Imagin'd Corners used four distant horn players, who opened the piece at the back of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with a video monitor and then moved to various places in the hall and on the stage. As an evocation of the Last Judgment and the angel trumpeters at the four corners of the world (the title comes from one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets) it naturally recalls the Tuba mirum section of Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts. Quotations of the horn call from Siegfried and Brittenesque string writing were other references to the past. The best part of the piece was a tribute to Messiaen, a birdsong serenade of twittering winds and clattering metal percussion.
The Anderson was bookended with a more substantial work about death and commemoration, Gunther Schuller's Of Reminiscences and Reflections, a 1993 tribute to his wife, Marjorie Black, who had died a year earlier. It also featured a prominent solo for horn (Schuller was a horn player), and most strikingly a howling opening for orchestral tutti dispersed to reveal a charming duet of graceful misfits for English horn and contrabassoon. The range of sound combinations and textures put some of the more recent compositions to shame and seemed very deserving of its 1994 Pulitzer Prize. Scanning over the list of Pulitzer winners in the music category, it is interesting to note how many of them have become quite familiar, at least from the early years. Someone should organize a festival to play all of the winning pieces from 1943 to the present: it would be great have the chance to hear live performances of Leslie Bassett's Variations for Orchestra (1966), George Crumb's Echoes of Time and the River (1968), Jacob Druckman's Windows (1972), or Mario Davidovsky's Synchronisms No. 6 for Piano and Electronic Sound (1971).
Anne Midgette, NSO, Knussen Ride the 'Current' Together (Washington Post, May 8)
Tim Smith, National Symphony plunges into CrossCurrents with Oliver Knussen (Clef Notes, May 9)
Emily Cary, Violinist performs concerto as part of Crosscurrents series (Washington Examiner, May 6)
This concert will be repeated this evening (May 9, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. As a postlude to the CrossCurrents festival, Oliver Knussen will also conduct a special concert by a chamber orchestra drawn from the NSO on Sunday (May 10, 7:30 pm), in a program of more contemporary music in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Buying tickets to both events could qualify you for a $10 discount.