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Contemporary Music Forum, National Gallery

We welcome another review from Ionarts guest contributor Michael Lodico.

Patrons of the National Gallery of Art’s free Sunday evening concert series were treated to a superb evening of works by John Cage performed by the Contemporary Music Forum. Since Cage and painter Jasper Johns were acquainted, the program was presented in conjuction with the Jasper Johns exhibit that is on view through April 29th at the NGA. (This was the final concert of the 62nd American Music Festival, the first part of which was reviewed here). It offered listeners just over an hour of concise, yet diverse works. Adding to the concert’s accessibility were the written and verbal program notes (.PDF file), both of which were well prepared and concise.

Amores, composed in 1943 for prepared piano and percussion, was executed with absolute steadiness and clarity. The piano was modified with nine screws, eight bolts, two nuts, and three strips of rubber, which gave it a vibrant percussion section of its own. The musicians, under the musical direction of Steve Antosca, did an excellent job adapting to the cathedral-like acoustic of the NGA’s West Garden Court by keeping tempi on the safe side, which consequently added strength to their performance. When forte and above, their sound was always full, thus never overbearingly loud.

Credo in US was composed in 1942 for piano, percussion, and radio or phonograph. While no match in volume for the percussion and piano, the obsequious first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was interspersed throughout the work by a stereo. Among the muted gongs, tin cans, and tom-toms, the electric buzzer called for in the score reminded the ear of a car horn standing out in an urban maze of noise. Instead of the electric buzzer, perhaps Cage – if still living – would have approved of the substitution of a cell phone ring to bring the piece up to date. A blues-like vamp on the piano evolves from the commotion of urban noise toward the end of the piece, inviting the audience to ponder sounds of daily life as music.

The woodblocks and bamboo sticks in Trio, from 1936, for percussion, evoked sounds of the rainforest. The gem of the program was Nocturne, composed in 1947 for violin and piano. Here violinist Lina Bahn and pianist Lura Johnson gave an ideal performance by letting their notes fully sustain in the room and then melt together into the wet acoustic of the narrow, yet high-ceilinged space. Programming a piece lacking a perceptible time signature at this point in the program was very clever. Cage described this work as “an attempt to dissolve the difference between string and piano sounds.” The effect was magical.

The Third Construction, composed in 1941 for percussion, is mathematically based upon twenty-four parts of twenty-four measures each, which are layered upon one another. The piece began with a rainforest-like texture due to the cricket-caller, rattles, and an instrument replicating a lion’s roar. This concluding piece then developed into a powerful frenzy, above which entered the sound of a conch shell, with the roundness of a French horn, playing long, sighing notes that filled the incredible acoustic with the sonic effect of an elephant in agony.

This Sunday's concert at the National Gallery of Art (March 11, 6:30 pm) will feature Dalia Atlas as guest conductor of the National Gallery Orchestra, with pianist Ingrid Fliter. The program, presented in cooperation with the National Museum of Women in the Arts in honor of Women's History Month, includes music by Fanny Mendelssohn.

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