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21st Century Consort: "Flora and Fauna"

We welcome this review, another Ionarts exclusive, from guest contributor Janet Peachey, who is a composer based here in Washington. Dr. Peachey also teaches music theory and composition at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

Flora and Fauna, the 21st Century Consort’s Saturday afternoon concert at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was dedicated to author and New York Times science columnist Natalie Angier. She was the inspiration for this program: all of the works on the concert had a plant or animal theme. Each half of the concert opened with a short video presentation. First was Music from a Tree by composer, sound designer, and performer Diego Stocco. All the sounds for the piece were generated by “playing” a tree: bowing the twigs with a cello and double bass bow, shaking the leaves, playing rhythms on the cortex, and so on. Twigs were trimmed to tune them to desired pitches. The composer recorded the sounds one at a time, layering them to create an intricate rhythmic texture with a few pitches. The movie showed Stocco creating each sound in real time as it entered the composition. The second video, presented after intermission, was Chicken Speak to Duck, Pig Speak to Dog, produced by Zhou Tao in 2005. A group of Chinese farmers expertly made a chorus of animal sounds in a wooded setting, more performance art than music.

The highlight of the program was Robert Parris’s Book of Imaginary Beings, written in 1972 by the late D.C. composer. Each of the eight movements, scored for flute, violin, cello, piano, and two percussionists, depicts a mythological being. The first movement, Amphisbaena (a serpent with two heads), is also played in retrograde as the last movement. In the 6th movement, The Double, the cello and piano played Saint-Saens’ The Swan as a backdrop to raucous statements by the other instruments. Although it was by far the oldest work on the program, Parris’s work sounded in no way dated; it was as fresh and modern as if it had just been composed.

Two of the works on the program drew on Celtic folk music. The Barnacle and the Nautilus for viola and cello by Evan Chambers, Chair of the Composition Department at the University of Michigan, consisted of two jigs, a slow one and a fast one. Also drawing on Celtic folk music was a piano quartet by Scott Wheeler: Dragon Mountain, written in 1992, a major work in three movements which ended the program. Although a non-narrative concert work, it was a spin-off of Wheeler’s musical-theater piece The Little Dragon, based on a story by Jay O’Callahan. (Wheeler’s opera Democracy was commissioned by Washington National Opera and premiered by the company in 2005.)

Paul Moravec, recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for music, was represented by Zuzu’s Petals, a virtuoso piece for violin and marimba written in 2000. The title comes from the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a daughter’s flower petals symbolize a return to life for protagonist George Bailey, and the piece captures the exuberance of life rediscovered. All of the performers in this concert -- violinist Elisabeth Adkins, pianist Lisa Emenheiser, percussionists Tom Jones and Daniel Villanuova, violist Jennifer Mondie, flutist Sara Stern, and cellist Rachel Young -- are some of Washington's finest musicians and their performances were first-rate.

The final concert of the 21st Century Consort's season (May 8, 5 pm) will feature music by Sebastian Currier, Lukas Foss, Steve Reich, and Thomas Albert.

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