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New York Chamber Soloists @ NGA

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

On Sunday evening, members of the New York Chamber Soloists opened the winter season of the free concert series at the National Gallery of Art. They were last in Washington to give an all-Baroque concert at the National Academy of Sciences in 2003, and although they play a lot of Baroque music, it is not really a specialty, at least not to these ears. The opening work on this concert, one of the Vivaldi double wind concerti, felt under-rehearsed, almost like an afterthought to more interesting pieces on the program. In fact, leaving it off the program would have spared the hassle of bringing in a harpsichord, used only for this work. It was a rough start, with too many infelicities of intonation (especially from the oboe) and rhythmic alignment. This is a shame because it is a lovely piece of music, especially the third movement, an Allegro molto based on a repeated bass pattern.

The best playing came in the middle of the program, especially the pairing of flutist Jennifer Grim and clarinetist Allen Blustine on Elliott Carter's Esprit rude/Esprit doux. It is one of several birthday tributes that the soon-to-be 100-year-old Carter (born December 11, 1908, one day after Olivier Messiaen) has offered to Pierre Boulez, in this case for Boulez's 60th birthday, in 1985. (He revised it, adding a part for marimba, for Boulez's 70th.) The piece is a fascinating opposition of two voices, based on motifs taken from letters in Boulez's name and linguistic arcana relating to a phrase in Greek, incarnated by the two wind instruments, demanding a virtuosic control of range, dynamics, and attack.

The strings had their turn in the meatiest selection, Mozart's piano quartet in E-flat major (K. 493, 1786), played with gentle tempo choices in the first and third movements. The piano dominates much of the work, and the part's many demands were met ably by Elizabeth Metcalfe, helped along by the restraint of her colleagues. The second half opened with a curiosity, a Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs by Camille Saint-Saëns (op. 79, 1887). Featuring the three woodwinds and piano, it is a pretty enough but grotesquely flowery piece, with modal harmonizations of the source tunes similar to those of Vaughan Williams. Not something that calls for repeated playing, but it was an interesting facet of this varied and worthy program, one of the chief assets of this concert.

The major failure was the concluding work, a recent commission from Gerald Fried (b. 1928), The Chess Game. It was premiered by the New York Chamber Soloists in 2006, as part of their regular appearance at the Vermont Mozart Festival. If you do not know Fried's music, think again: he composed scores for some of Stanley Kubrick's early movies, worked with Quincy Jones on the score of the mini-series Roots, and wrote music for TV shows like Gilligan's Island and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He has been quoted as saying, "If music can stand up in the concert hall, it's probably too complicated for film." The reverse is also true and was sadly proved by this piece, a series of oh-so-whimsical vignettes based on Alice in Wonderland. If a work has spoken narration over the music, as this did, it probably means that the music, as in a film, is of secondary importance. Forgive me for the cross-language pun, but The Chess Game is un échec.

The next several weeks of the free concert series at the National Gallery of Art are going to be good: the Vilnius String Quartet (January 13), pianist Jeni Slotchiver (January 20), the Central Bucks County High School West Chamber Choir (January 27, in a challenging and intriguing program of modern music, rather unusual), the Hugo Wolf Quartet (February 3), the Orchestra of New Spain (February 10, a program of 18th-century Spanish music), and the much-missed Juilliard String Quartet (February 17). All concerts begin at 6:30 pm on Sunday evenings.

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