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La Maison Française’s French-American Contemporary Music Festival, Part 2

On an unbearably hot and humid (that is, typical) Washington summer day, maybe 35 people found their way to part two of La Maison Française's French-American Contemporary Music Festival, which lacked the draw of Charles Rosen and featured music of Pascal Dusapin. (For a review of part one on Ionarts, look here.)

First to confound was Musique fugitive (1980) for string trio, with the performers culled from the Quatuor Diotima. (The players had all been brought down from New York by the Festival's organizer and pianist Marc Ponthus.) Music is difficult to comment on when, from hearing only, the listener would not be able to tell that notation is involved, or indeed needed. The string trio stretched the allowances I make for modernist and avant-garde music to its limits. I won't stoop to construe some awful pun on the title, but feel free to come up with a few yourselves.

Two Etudes for Piano (nos. 1 and 2) from 1998 were next and wave-like rocked away under the impressively able hands of Marcel Ponthus. Ruminating, meandering, pleasant, too long: yes. Invigorating: no. I would not be surprised if a few audience members drifted off during the etudes with their narrow dynamic range.

Ici (1986) for flute, performed by Robert Dick, was the last item before the (cancelled) intermission, and the most interesting up to that point. I've commented before on the quantity of flute music among modern composers' output, and Ici is one of the worthier additions. As many of these pieces, it makes effective use of the many sounds a flautist can get out of his (or her) instrument. Clicking and spitting sounds, blown, whistled, breathed notes, tongue pizzicati, et al. were all employed. If it wasn't particularly memorable, it was at least entertaining for the ten or so minutes it lasted.

Shin'gyô (1981) for soprano and piccolo flute got its outing next. The piccolo often played in a perversely low register (Robert Dick was the soloist again) while soprano Halek Abghari uttered, sang, trilled mostly in the vocal stratosphere. The execution, in which Ms. Abghari's performance must receive special praise, was excellent. Difficult to impossible as it is to judge from the listener's perspective, the same cannot be said about the work. The 1987 IL-LI-KO, a pièce romantique pour Soprano solo reminded me of Dada poems of the 1920s and had its own, enchantingly transcendental soundscape. It was of course Ms. Abghari who lent her agile voice to the challenging work.

Closing the concert on a conciliatory note was the String Quartet Nº 4. It wasn't the only composition I enjoyed, but the only one I'd actually want to hear again. Even though I'd be hard pressed to cite sophisticated examples upon one hearing, I thought that it had Beethoven written all over it. The seeming progression of Pascal Dusapin toward a more accessible idiom and more depth towards the late 90s may well have something to do with that… the string quartet was composed in 1997. It was a far more "difficult" concert than the one on the preceding night and in many ways less rewarding, but sometimes "interesting" is reason enough... and then there was that string quartet, a fascinating discovery for most listeners, I am sure.

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