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Contemporary Music Forum at the Corcoran

Lina Bahn and Jeffrey Mumford, Contemporary Music Forum, September 18, 2005The Corcoran Gallery of Art hosts a couple of interesting series of concerts, and Ionarts is particularly fond of the one presented by the gallery's resident ensemble, the Contemporary Music Forum. So, on Sunday at the first concert of this group, which presents examples of new music four times per year, Ionarts was there in the front row. When I plugged this concert in my weekly column at DCist, it was largely out of interest in hearing a piece by George Perle, who is 90 years old this year. Critical Moments, from 1996, is a set of six movements for piano, violin, cello, flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet (doubling on E-flat clarinet), and percussion. Due to a shortage of copies of the program, we had very interesting verbal introductions from the performers before each piece. No sooner had violinist Lina Bahn told us that the players had decided that the movements were humorous that a baby in the audience started crying. "That's mine," Ms. Bahn let us know.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Contemporary Music Forum, Squeezing Plenty In (Washington Post, September 20)
By the third movement, another small child in the gallery's semicircular Hammer Auditorium was loudly announcing, "I don't like the drum!" Far be it from me to dislike music because it makes children cry: Perle's pointillistic textures did not disappoint, especially the shrill tone of the high winds. It was also very entertaining to see the single percussion player manage the considerable battery, even at one point rubbing the edge of a cymbal with what looked like a double-bass bow. However, the Perle was not the best piece on the program. I much preferred the Toccata that followed it, by Rice University composer Pierre Jalbert, with its constant barrage of running notes and quasi-minimalistic sound managed skillfully by pianist Audrey Andrist. The first half concluded with Donald Erb's Three Poems for Violin and Piano, from 1987, a work originally commissioned by the Library of Congress McKim Commission. The most interesting movement was the middle one, also called Toccata, which attempts to describe the sound of "rats' feet over broken glass," a line quoted from the first part of T. S. Eliot's Hollow Men:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
The violin creates all sort of high rat-like sounds, while the pianist strikes the keyboard with flat palm or even the entire arm. Duct tape applied over the piano's upper strings created a hollow, percussive sound that was eerily appropriate. The most impressive performance was of Derek Bermel's Turning, a marvelous set of variations on an invented Protestant-style hymn tune, which bears an uncanny likeness to "Jesus loves me, this I know" (as pianist Lura Johnson explained before her spot-on performance). Lastly, something special happens when a composer creates a piece of music especially for a specific performer. In this case, that was Jeffrey Mumford, who wrote an expanding distance of multiple voices, based on the perfect fifths of the violin's open strings, for the group's excellent violinist, Lina Bahn. (Both are shown in the photograph above.) All in all, it was an entertaining afternoon of new music at the Corcoran.

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