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Mo' Modern: Knussen Keeps It New

Violinist Leila Josefowicz (photo
by Deborah O'Grady)

available at Amazon
O. Knussen, Violin Concerto, L. Josefowicz, BBC Symphony Orchestra (Live at the Proms 2007)
In keeping with the CrossCurrents festival of contemporary music that has been going on at the Kennedy Center since the beginning of the month, the National Symphony Orchestra invited British composer Oliver Knussen to preside over a program of orchestral music from the last two decades. The sounds from this cross-section of new music, little of it all that shocking or discordant, belied the small audience, presumably staying away out of fear or dislike of the unfamiliar. Hearing a new piece of music is one of the most exciting listening experiences possible, the chance to explore new aural territory and judge for oneself its merits or failures. One does not expect to love every new book one reads or find it an instant classic, but one does not simply keep rereading favorite books of previous centuries because of that. Considering the emptiness of the house, for future concerts of this sort the NSO should consider a significant reduction in ticket prices or even offering free tickets. If you are going to have empty seats and lose ticket revenue anyway, why not?

As heard last night, these four pieces -- all but one of them composed in the 21st century and none lasting longer than 20 minutes -- gave the impression of a program of overtures, a little more than an hour's worth of music, which created a pleasing impression but actually introduced nothing. It says something about the way that new orchestral music is generally commissioned to fit into mainstream orchestral programs, leading to a preponderance of short character works and leaving few opportunities for new works on the scale of a Mahler symphony, for example. British composer Julian Anderson's Imagin'd Corners used four distant horn players, who opened the piece at the back of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with a video monitor and then moved to various places in the hall and on the stage. As an evocation of the Last Judgment and the angel trumpeters at the four corners of the world (the title comes from one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets) it naturally recalls the Tuba mirum section of Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts. Quotations of the horn call from Siegfried and Brittenesque string writing were other references to the past. The best part of the piece was a tribute to Messiaen, a birdsong serenade of twittering winds and clattering metal percussion.

The Anderson was bookended with a more substantial work about death and commemoration, Gunther Schuller's Of Reminiscences and Reflections, a 1993 tribute to his wife, Marjorie Black, who had died a year earlier. It also featured a prominent solo for horn (Schuller was a horn player), and most strikingly a howling opening for orchestral tutti dispersed to reveal a charming duet of graceful misfits for English horn and contrabassoon. The range of sound combinations and textures put some of the more recent compositions to shame and seemed very deserving of its 1994 Pulitzer Prize. Scanning over the list of Pulitzer winners in the music category, it is interesting to note how many of them have become quite familiar, at least from the early years. Someone should organize a festival to play all of the winning pieces from 1943 to the present: it would be great have the chance to hear live performances of Leslie Bassett's Variations for Orchestra (1966), George Crumb's Echoes of Time and the River (1968), Jacob Druckman's Windows (1972), or Mario Davidovsky's Synchronisms No. 6 for Piano and Electronic Sound (1971).

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, NSO, Knussen Ride the 'Current' Together (Washington Post, May 8)

Tim Smith, National Symphony plunges into CrossCurrents with Oliver Knussen (Clef Notes, May 9)

Emily Cary, Violinist performs concerto as part of Crosscurrents series (Washington Examiner, May 6)
MacArthur Genius violinist Leila Josefowicz joined the NSO for the local premiere of Knussen's violin concerto, a work she recorded live at the Proms a couple years ago. The best part of this work was the sultry middle "slow movement" (it is played as a single movement without interruption), with Josefowicz's suave solo line shrouded in glowing string and harp sonorities and heaving sigh motifs in the winds. In the more active outer "movements," Josefowicz was sweet-toned and never harsh but could be heard, trading rapid, quasi-Baroque figuration with the orchestra, especially in the gigue-like "third movement." Dance was also the main concern of Augusta Read Thomas's Helios Choros I, from 2006, with a potpourri of influences on this piece the composer described as a "long crescendo," from spicy Caribbean sorts of rhythms to Britten-like glassy harmonies, especially when the brass sounded (more than one allusion to Peter Grimes glinted through). None of these pieces is likely to figure regularly in my listening, but it was good to hear them all, performed to a high standard by the NSO and under the careful conducting of Knussen.

This concert will be repeated this evening (May 9, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. As a postlude to the CrossCurrents festival, Oliver Knussen will also conduct a special concert by a chamber orchestra drawn from the NSO on Sunday (May 10, 7:30 pm), in a program of more contemporary music in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Buying tickets to both events could qualify you for a $10 discount.

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