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21st Century Consort: Swan and Stone

21st Century ConsortThe 21st Century Consort offered its latest program of recent music on Saturday evening at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Called Swan and Stone, this concert was centered on the theme of magical transformations, but instead of Baroque music (as on a similar program by Tafelmusik earlier this month), it brought together examples of 20th-century music. This is the other hat worn by Christopher Kendall, who also co-directs the Folger Consort and spends significant time in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, in addition to teaching duties at the University of Michigan. As with any group like this that takes chances on recent music by new composers, not everything presented by the 21st Century Consort is necessarily a hit, but it is always of interest. The group has recently announced that an archive of recordings from its long concert history, featuring an impressive array of new music, is in the process of being deposited at the library of the University of Maryland for public consultation.

One of the best reasons to attend a concert by the 21st Century Consort is the chance to hear some of the best musicians in the National Symphony Orchestra in a chamber setting. The program opened with Elizabeth Adkins (the NSO's Associate Concertmaster) and David Hardy (principal cellist) in a duet, The Swan, by Lawrence Moss, a composer who teaches at the University of Maryland. The piece was inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke's poem Der Schwan, heard by the composer at the memorial service for Christopher Kendall's mother (it was found at her bedside after she died). The violin and the cello, both played with sensitivity, were often in the same range, speaking in close counterpoint, with plaintive harmonics and a subtle quotation from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The rest of the program was focused on vocal repertoire, beginning with a work conceived for children, Jon Deak's The Ugly Duckling. It casts the title animal as a gangly double-bass (played with dry humor by Rick Barber) against a narrator who takes many of the other voices (the versatile soprano Carmen Pelton). After a first part of only those two musicians, the second part brings in a string quartet, playing mostly in a tonal style.

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Of much greater interest was the substantial work that made up the second half, TreeStone by Stephen Albert, premiered in partial form by the 21st Century Consort in 1984. The text, divided between a soprano (Carmen Pelton, now in a less comic guise) and a tenor (the raspy but effective Randal Rushing), is drawn from the Tristan and Iseult episodes in James Joyce's enigmatic novel Finnegans Wake. The large instrumental forces, effectively a small chamber orchestra of thirteen players, with the wind players covering more than one instrument, must limit the number of performances. Albert, who died tragically young a few years after he won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize, mirrored the combination of idioms in Joyce's text, interweaving harsh dissonance, ethereal metallic conjurations, and folk and popular song idioms. The result is a musical tapestry as complex as Joyce's text (well, maybe not that complex).

The final concert by the 21st Century Consort this season is called The Sound of Light (April 5, 5 pm), at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It is offered in conjunction with the museum's upcoming exhibit Color as Field: American Painting, 1950–1975 and includes the world premiere of James Primosch’s Dark the Star.

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