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PRISM Quartet at the Atlas

We welcome a new guest contributor to Ionarts, Noah Mlotek, who is a singer and classicist here in Washington. You know how much we love classical languages here at Ionarts: please direct all your Latin and Greek questions to Noah. Noah's first review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Having traversed near-total gridlock on the night of the Nats’ last stand on Friday, and reaching the Atlas Performing Arts Center only to find H Street closed to traffic for President Obama’s dinner nearby, a tiny but appreciative audience enjoyed a fine performance by the PRISM Saxophone Quartet. The ensemble’s four identically suited and bespectacled members played through a bewildering array of pieces, most written expressly for them. Over PRISM’s twenty-eight years, it has won acclaim for championing new music, commissioning more than 150 works, and recording extensively. From last night’s performance and informal discussion, it’s clear why so many composers are keen to work with the ensemble: these mild-mannered virtuosi can, and will, play anything.

The program was a lot to absorb, a manic mash-up of contrasting styles and sound worlds. The first half contained no fewer than fifteen short pieces by as many different composers, all written as tributes to the quartet for its 20th anniversary in 2004. Even the longer works of the second half encompassed diverse styles; one of William Albright’s Fantasy Études recalled the wails of highland bagpipes, while another summoned the soundtracks of 1950s cop shows.

To avoid an aesthetic headache, one had largely to abandon the search for common threads uniting the pieces and instead approach the concert as an ear-opening sampler from which listeners could choose the sounds that intrigued and inspired them. What stood out for me were the pieces that drew most on PRISM’s preternatural repertoire of extended techniques, from the metallic multiphonics used by several of the composers (multiple pitches can be played simultaneously on a saxophone, creating an unearthly sound) to the hair-raising microtonal increments called for by Frank Oteri and Keith Moore. I particularly enjoyed the second movement of Martin Bresnick’s Every Thing Must Go, a vibrant fantasia on the overtone series.

Bresnick’s piece, written in memory of his teacher György Ligeti, was a fitting close to the program, as it alluded to both the value and the limitations of mentorship. The members of PRISM mentioned several times the importance of mentors, including the composer Albright, in the group’s formation. Ultimately, however, the musicians had to strike out on their own, commissioning their own vast repertoire and cultivating new audiences for it.

The next concert of new music at the Atlas Performing Arts Center will feature the Great Noise Ensemble (October 19, 7:30 pm).

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