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Left Bank Ligeti

How often does one get the chance to hear György Ligeti's String Quartet No. 1 ("Metamorphoses—Nocturnes") twice in the course of a month?! (See the Pacifica Quartet review here). I regret not having known the Left Bank Concert Society's program beforehand, else I should have tried to get the legions of Ligeti-loving Ionarts readers to swamp the sadly half-empty Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center.

There they would have been able to indulge in the tart fruits of Luciano Berio, Oliver Knussen, the aforementioned György Ligeti, and Béla Bartók. Sequenza III (1966) by Berio may be an odd modernist cacophony for solo voice to those who only hear it in recorded or broadcast form (fat chance any American radio station would broadcast that work these days...), but live it becomes a highly amusing show, a zoo of vocal and acting exhibitions. Suddenly the strangeness of it all makes sense on its own merit. Phyllis Bryn-Julson (a fellow Cobber) hiccuped, laughed, talked, cooed, shrieked, sang, giggled, and babbled her way into the audience's heart, all with the utmost charming vitality. Quattro canzoni populari (1947–1973) are comparatively tame tonal songs, based on (or inspired by) folk music. They were beautiful melodies that, whether intentionally or not, seemed to gain in their folk authenticity wherever Ms. Bryn-Julson's voice, for all its glory, was strained, vulnerable, or unstable.

Oliver Knussen's Cantata op. 15 for Oboe and String Trio (1975–1977) begins with long, elegiacal musical lines that exude grace, only to be superseded by a nervous mood where the instruments have their jitters. I generally try to be open-minded about all modern music, even the most forbidding works, but Knussen made it especially easy for me. Even with its oboe squeaks over strings, it was arguably "pretty," at least when compared to similar works by Milton Babbitt. Left Bank artistic co-directors Evelyn Elsing and David Salness (cello and violin, respectively), violist Katherine Murdock, and oboist Mark Hill (inflating his neck like an exploding frog, an ability of oboists that has fascinated me since childhood) gave their all in the "cantata."

B. Bartók, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Perahia, Solti
The Ligeti quartet surely could have used a bit of an introduction in the talk that preceded the concert rather than the speaker going on in fair detail about the Paul Sacher Foundation (important sponsors of modern music for over 50 years) and music that was not on the program. But then I might underestimate the select Left Bank Concert audience, which has legitimately different needs than an unexpecting Freer/Sackler Gallery crowd. The enthusiastic, rapturous applause after the quartet—even without introduction—certainly seemed to point in that direction. The players of the Left Bank Quartet (violinist Sally McLain replaced Mr. Hill) played it very well, if not with quite the same intensity or accuracy as the Pacifica Quartet had.

Béla Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Two Percussion from 1937 is a tremendous work that I don't think I had heard before. Messrs. McKay and Villanueva worked their timpani, gongs, snare drums, and xylophones to great effect, while facing them, Audrey Andrist and Colette Valentine played the heck out of the two grand pianos. The cumulative force of the Assai lento alone was enough to awe the audience. Describing its wonders would be too cumbersome and long-winded. It really ought to be heard, though I might approximately describe its impact by likening it to a blend of Shostakovich's 4th symphony (first movement) and Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, four-hand piano version. If that sounds at all intriguing, the sonata was written for you and you'd be lucky to hear it as committedly performed as by the artists at the Left Bank's last performance this season.

Also see the review by Grace Jean (Washington Post, May 9).

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