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Beckett and Koston Celebrated

Pianist Dina Koston was a leading cultural force in Washington through her leadership of the Theater Chamber Players, an ensemble she founded with Leon Fleisher that gave performances of contemporary and older music at the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center for many years. She also composed music, although it was more of an occasional dalliance than something for which she will be principally remembered. A bequest that followed her death in 2009 established the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music, which will underwrite commissions and performance of new music at the Library of Congress, beginning with a concert of new music by Koston and others last night.

This event opened with a performance of Samuel Beckett's short play Ohio Impromptu, written for a celebration of the playwright's 75th birthday, hosted at Ohio State University in Columbus. In a framing halo of lighting elements (designed by Michael Gianniti), Joy Zinoman, founding artistic director of the Studio Theater, directed Ted van Greithuysen and Steve Nixon in this austere production. The two men, as indicated by Beckett, appeared as doubles of one another, in black coat and long white hair (like some depictions of the older Abbé Liszt), seated at a table. The Reader narrates memories, heavily autobiographical in content -- with references to Beckett's memories of working with James Joyce in Paris (a wide-brimmed hat like the one Joyce used to wear rested on the end of the table) and to the "dear face" and "dear name," never specified or actually spoken (like the name of Adonai in the Jewish tradition), of Beckett's wife, Suzanne -- while the Listener listens to them. With the same intense nostalgia as seen in Beckett's character Krapp listening to his birthday tapes, the Listener sometimes strikes his hand on the table, causing the Reader to go back over something just read so that the Listener can savor it.

The Beckett was work was performed because of the piece of music that followed it, Distant Intervals, Koston's last composition, which was inspired by Ohio Impromptu, down to the knocking sounds made on the wooden bodies of some of the instruments. As performed by the Cygnus Ensemble, again with the inestimable help of conductor James Baker, it was an amassing of many unusual sounds and instrumental effects, performed beautifully, but without much to recommend it for further listening. Koston's quirky scene for voice and piano, A Short Tale, from 2005, was much more interesting, a series of enthusiastic words and expressions set to vocal melodic gestures, realized with hysterical fervor by versatile soprano Elizabeth Farnum. On the basis of these contributions, the impression of Koston as a less substantial composer remained.

Other selections were just as variable, from the inconsequential to the intriguing. In the former category was Chester Biscardi's Resisting Stillness, an atmospheric dialogue for two guitars, with some interesting harmonic effects, and Frank Brickle's arrangement of Ferruccio Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque, a melancholy but repetitive lullaby. Four excerpts from David Claman's Gone for Foreign left me at least interested to hear more, instrumental expressions of faux-English expressions the composer heard on his travels in India. In "Gone for Foreign," the movement of a train was suggested by chuffing sounds blown through the flute and the whistle-like bends of the shrill oboe. Claman continued to find countless ways of using and combining the instruments for a maximal range of ensemble tone color.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Library of Congress and Cygnus Ensemble honor Dina Koston (Washington Post, March 9)
Most striking of all were two more pieces that featured the uncanny precision of Elizabeth Farnum's voice -- she must have perfect pitch to be able to sing this music with such accuracy. Farai un vers, Frank Brickle's setting of a troubadour poem, by Guillaume IX, Duke of Aquitaine, had loosely tonal, even jazzy elements in the harmony, with a pleasingly active rhythmic style. The concert ended with the most interesting piece, a new song cycle by Mario Davidovsky, whose work in electronic electroacoustic music won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1971. Ladino Songs was commissioned by the new Koston-Shapiro Fund, and the story of Davidovsky's life -- born in Argentina to Jewish émigré parents -- as well as the texts -- taken from folk poetry in Ladino, the mixture of Spanish, Hebrew, and other languages spoken by Spanish Jews -- recall another composer much in the news right now, Osvaldo Golijov. So, while many people are bending over backwards to explain away the lack of originality in Golijov's music, it is also good to remember that there are other, more talented composers who do not benefit from a commissioning project sucking up resources from thirty-five orchestras. Ladino Songs was a diverting work, with some catchy rhythmic moments, some folksy vocal effects, and lots of modernistic influences in dissonant harmony and an often Webernesque spareness -- it felt like music that had absorbed many of the same influences as Golijov but had arrived at a distillation of those influences that caught the attention.

The tribute to Dina Koston continues tonight, with a concert led by Leon Fleisher and featuring his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and musicians from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University (March 8, 8 pm), at the Library of Congress. Admission is free and open to the public.

Jeremy Irons in Ohio Impromptu (film adaptation)


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Actually, the Mario Davidovsky 1971Pulitzer Prize-winning work was for piano (your instrument) and electronics -- "Synchronisms No. 6".

It was the previous year, 1970, that Charles Wuorinen won the Pulitzer Prize for his purely electronic work, "Time's Encomium", released on Nonesuch Records. Both were premiered at the Berkshire Music Festival.

With all due respect to Mr. Davidovsky, I think the 1971 Pulitzer Prize should have gone to George Crumb's now classic "Ancient Voices of Children", commissioned by the Library of Congress's Coolidge Foundation and premiered at the Library of Congress on Halloween 1970.

Perhaps, on the other hand, Mr. Davidovsky's new cycle will win the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

PS. I heard more in Dina Koston's last work than you did. The score parts are available on-line, and it has actually been broadcast on WETA-FM.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for that. Yes, I should have said "electroacoustic work" for Davidovsky. Your comment about the Crumb work that lost out that year is interesting -- something about Davidovsky's treatment of the voice in "Ladino Songs" reminded me of "Ancient Voices of Children," which is indeed one great piece of music.