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Jeffrey Mumford Portrait at the National Gallery

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Jeffrey Mumford (b. 1955) is composer-in-residence this month at the National Gallery of Art, and in his second concert there, violinist Miranda Cuckson and cellist Julia Bruskin offered an intimate portrait of the D.C.-born composer. They played five works spanning nearly a quarter-century of Mumford’s output, providing a time-lapsed exposure that revealed a consistency of style. Since each of the pieces contained multiple parts, they seemed less like five independent works than an extended series of variations on a central idea.

The implications of this for a listener’s enjoyment or otherwise are obvious. They depend both on one’s taste for the style in question and on one’s attention span. (I started strong on the first but wound up somewhat hamstrung by the second.) Mumford’s music is freely atonal, occasionally dwelling on a few repeated notes but usually unmoored from any pitch center. Many of his phrases are short and bracketed by silence, exquisite aphorisms that carried well in the Gallery’s super-resonant acoustic. There are several elegiac lines that would sound simply sweet if played alone but which are unsettled by the addition of minor second intervals. The music explores a narrow range of moods, mostly alternating between pensive disquiet and fidgety restlessness, with occasional panic attacks, but it never stays in one mood for very long. Hysteria quickly loses steam and falls quiet, while a hushed meditation is rudely interrupted by an anxious outburst.

Receiving its world premiere, eight aspects of appreciation II for violin and cello was a finely crafted revision of an earlier piece. Starting in dialogue, the voices soon drifted apart. In one section they traded off the notes of a gentle lullaby, but agitation kept intruding. (One of Mumford’s favorite gestures is a blunt outburst followed by quiet ruminations, like the splash of a stone in water followed by its ripples.) Another movement evanesced with the violin floating and the cello sinking to the top and bottom of their respective registers, as if falling off opposite ends of the audible spectrum. The final section riffled through themes from the prior ones, as if hurriedly searching for something and not finding it before giving up with a brusque shiver.

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Stephen Brookes, Jeffrey Mumford rightly vaunted by National Gallery of Art as composer-in-residence (Washington Post, February 4)
For two rhapsodies for cello & strings, Bruskin was joined by six members of the National Gallery of Art Chamber Players. Compared to the duos and the violin solos, this instrumentation was not as well suited to the acoustic, producing a murky, bass-heavy sound. Though consistent with Mumford’s other pieces, here the material took on a more forbidding aspect, losing the fragile beauty present in the others; it might have fared better in a different space. The two soloists shined throughout the evening. Cuckson in particular had a fine sense for the room, which allowed her to play Mumford’s often-thorny music with great clarity despite a challenging acoustic.

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