Reviews

Contemporary Music Forum

Celebrating its 35th Season

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2002-2003 Season

March 17, 2003

'Plugged In' and Contemporary at the Corcoran

By Joan Reinthaler

The Washington Post, Wednesday, March 19, 2003; Page C07

It's not quite clear where the line between "sound art" and music lies, but both sides were explored emphatically at the Contemporary Music Forum's concert at the Corcoran Gallery on Monday. This was the CMF's annual "Plugged In" program and everything on it had an electronic component.

The program itself was structured like a large arch between Patrick Long's "from the edge's loom" for violin, cello and audio processor and Steve Antosca's "for two," similarly scored. Two constructions for video and electronic sound, Paras Kaul's "Peace Streams" and Frederick Weck's "Video IV," balanced each other nicely and framed Alexandra Gardner's "Ayehli" for marimba and sampled sounds. As a program it made perfect sense and, impressively, most of the offerings did, too.

Long uses live instruments, processed in real time and played back in subtle echoes of varying intensity, to color his sounds. Violinist Lina Bahn and cellist Collin Oldham held up admirably under the piece's unrelenting propulsion.

Antosca uses his electronic forces similarly, but the effect is to distort the string sound and his material sounds angrier and more explosive. This is aleatoric music, music that requires the performers to improvise, and both instrumentalists seemed comfortable with their collaboration.

"Peace Streams" and "Video IV" were examples of well-handled coordination of sound and video, but Kaul's work is intensely personal, its images superimposed on a face with blinking eyes (and with her own brain waves as basic material) while Weck's sounds and images dwelled on abstract designs.

In Gardner's "Ayehli" the electronic dimension plays a more familiar role, as an accompaniment and musical context for the performer. Barry Dove played with assurance and amazing agility.

Both the Gardner and Weck performances were premieres.

2003 The Washington Post Company.   Used with permission.

April 28, 2003

Forum's Great Explorations

By Daniel Ginsberg

The Washington Post, Wednesday, April 30, 2003; Page C10

In a classical music world of declining recording contracts and a clear preference for the tried and true on concert programs, it must be a thrill for a composer to hear her or his work actually performed. Surely the delight would have been especially pronounced Monday evening at the Corcoran Gallery, where the Contemporary Music Forum rendered a diverse set of works with its special brand of sophistication and polish.

The rich cello of Lori Barnet and the subtle percussion of Bill Richards struck up a strong account of John Ross's "Passages," a beguiling exploration of color and melody. One moment strident string lines struggled with adamant drum hammering, and the next, soaring figures nestled in a dreamlike haze of sound. Pianist Jeffrey Watson and clarinetist David Jones joined Richards in Bruce Mahin's "Skye Lines," weaving a shimmering fabric of color. From a low growl to a piercing shriek, the musicians brought an essential precision and energy.

The apparent ease with which they negotiated Anthony Villa's Duo for Piano and Percussion belied the complexity of the four-movement piece, as xylophone, congas and piano evolved at different rhythms. Similarly, soprano Pamela Schiffer positively inhabited Libby Larsen's "Beloved, Thou Hast Brought Me Many Flowers," a lyrical set of songs that, by turns, came off as a gentle waft of smoke, a nostalgic walk in the brambles, and a tender ode to life's simple pleasures.

2003 The Washington Post Company.   Used with permission.

2001-2002 Season

October 25, 2001

Contemporary Music Forum

By Joseph McLellan

The Washington Post, Saturday, October 27, 2001; page C03

The Contemporary Music Forum opened its 28th season Thursday night at the Corcoran Gallery of Art with a program notable for its variety of solo and trio textures and structures. But even more remarkable than the music is that this uncompromisingly cutting-edge group has survived so long. The audience, as usual, was small but enthusiastic.

The two most famous composers on the program were represented by solo works. John Corigliano's Variations on an Ostinato (1985), played by pianist Jeffery Watson, conveyed an acute sense of the obsessive rhythm from the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony as a subtext for a series of fantastic elaborations. George Crumb's youthful Sonata for Solo Violoncello presented some formidable technical challenges, which were no problem for cellist Lori Barnet.

Violinist Lina Bahn, flutist Carole Bean and guest clarinetist Mark Gallagher alternated brilliant solos and lyric ensemble playing in Helmut Braunlich's Trio. That work's classic structures contrasted sharply with the other trios on the program. Stephen Hartke's "The Horse With the Lavender Eye -- Episodes for Violin, Clarinet and Piano" was a wildly imaginative excursion into musical schizophrenia, oscillating between motifs from the avant-garde and pop culture. Paul Dresher's "Double Ikat" for violin, piano and a wide array of metallic percussion instruments (played by Barry Dove) wove legato and percussive sounds in an intricate texture that sometimes called gamelan music to mind.

2001 The Washington Post Company.  Used with permission.

February 28, 2002

Revelation And Delight From Local Composers

By Joseph McLellan

The Washington Post, Saturday, March 2, 2002; Page C05

You can't say that composer Steven Campbell Hilmy hypes his own music excessively. In his notes for "four miniatures" for flute, clarinet and piano, which the Contemporary Music Forum premiered Thursday night at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Hilmy describes the various pieces as "obnoxious," "rather odd, slightly ethnic sounding," and "either irritating or interesting depending on your point of reference."

"The last piece," he says, "is joyful, fast, and, fortunately, over very quickly (it is, after all, a miniature)."

The four short works lived up to their creator's description except for one significant omission: They are a delight to hear -- full of character and drama, extremely vigorous, shaped with a fine ear for expressive form and an acute sense of the various instruments' potentials.

They opened a program of six works by Washington composers that reached similar levels of interest and quality: "Insect Songs" (1985) for high voice and violin, by Maurice Saylor; Three Etudes for clarinet and piano by Robert Gibson; Anthony Villa's Duo for violin and cello; ". . . merely circulating" for clarinet, viola and piano by Douglas Boyce; and "Variations 5: variation fantasy" for flute and piano by Anthony Stark. Like Hilmy's miniatures, they went beyond prettiness to explore a variety of exotic flavors.

The richness of imagination and variety of styles in this music -- tonal and atonal, improvisational and heavily structured, occasionally reminiscent of jazz and deeply rooted in the classical tradition -- made for an evening of happy revelations. I could not help recalling the first concerts of the Contemporary Music Forum, 28 years ago, and reflecting on how the new music scene in Washington has grown and improved, in part because of the encouragement and exposure this organization has given to composers.

Expert and revelatory performances were given by all eight musicians -- most notably by violinist Lina Bahn and guest clarinetist Robert Adelson.

2002 The Washington Post Company Used with permission.

May 9, 2002

Contemporary Music Forum at the Corcoran Gallery

By Joan Reinthaler

The Washington Post, Saturday, May 11, 2002; page C05

Frances Thompson McKay has filled a number of important roles in the musical life of this city, as a teacher, as a producer of concerts of contemporary music and as a prolific composer. The Contemporary Music Forum presented a program of six of her works at the Corcoran Gallery on Thursday, a courageous undertaking for both the performers and the composer.

McKay demands a great deal of her performers, both technically and musically. Her compositions are studies in textures and rhythms. She has an ear for interesting color and she uses material brilliantly and subtly but always economically. Lyricism is not high on her agenda but she is able to craft lovely short melodic motifs that are distinctive enough to hold a whole piece together. The artists of the Contemporary Music Forum did her proud.

The premiere of "river tree" for violin and piano opened the evening and set the stage with its intensity, inventiveness and intriguing sounds. In another premiere, the first movement of "Moving Pictures," a busy and intricate piano etude, was given a vivid and virtuoso reading by Laurie Hudicek. "Bridge Lights" for flute, cello, piano, tape, bowed and struck bells and narrator was full of wonderful sounds, textures and effects, but the poetry, recited here by Alan Cheuse, was often overwhelmed by the instrumental sonorities. Soprano Pamela Jordan Schiffer's singing met much the same fate in the performance of "Light Possessed," another premiere. Schiffer's voice, while attractive, does not have the focus needed to compete with instruments in full tilt.

Cellist Lori Barnet moved through the almost ritualistically repetitive and ultimately fascinating "Take the wings of the morning to the uttermost parts of the sea" with powerful introspection.

2002 The Washington Post Company.  Used with permission.

2000-2001 Season

November 5, 2000

Contemporary Music Forum:  Still Charming at 27

By Ronald Braun

The Washington Post, Tuesday, November 7, 2000; page C04

Maybe it's time to beat the drum for the Contemporary Music Forum, which opened its 27th season Sunday evening at the Corcoran Gallery.

The CMF is user-friendly, local, smart, occasionally misfiring but always interesting in the long run, needy and by every measure a bargain. Its customs may shock, but they do not stale.

D.J. Sparr's "Woodlawn Drive" is a full-of-tricks sextet that begins with engulfing, clustered yet delicate nature sounds. To oversimplify: Yesteryear--Sparr's grandmother's house in Woodlawn, Md.--materializes; there are fiddling and other rusticities that gradually fade, displaced by a racket of suburban disturbance (traffic, etc.). Joel Lazar conducted this little charmer, which for all the uproar was immediately accessible to anyone who doesn't mind amicable dissonance.

Liviu Marinescu's "Mozamorphosis" for flute, clarinet and violin, is based on a familiar snatch of Mozart, but begins in a fury of abstraction, which becomes sequentially more tonal until, finally, Mozart's thematic material is disclosed. This piece is at least clever, at best something considerably more; it should be heard again (this was the first performance).

Another premiere--James Marshall's "Ciel Bleu," for clarinet and percussion--is a study of texture, but just seeing blue sky gets the job done quicker and better, and oh, how this piece goes on.

Michael Daughterty's "Jackie's Song," for solo cello, is based on a simple tritone core, which moves to the instrument's upper range and wails; a gimmick, but well played by Lori Barnet.

Carole Bean, on flute, gave Varese's "Density 21.5" an agreeably serene outing.

2000 The Washington Post Company.  Used with permission.

December 7, 2000       

Herman Berlinski, Leading the Way

By Joseph McLellan

The Washington Post, Monday, December 11, 2000; page C04

"I wrote these pieces five years ago," Herman Berlinski told a group of friends Thursday evening in the Corcoran Gallery, "but this is the first time I have heard them played." This was at a reception after a concert by the Contemporary Music Forum, belatedly honoring Berlinski's 90th birthday.

What Berlinski had not previously heard were four short, simple and witty duets for violin and cello he wrote in 1995 for cellist Lori Barnet and her daughter Alice (then 10 years old), who was studying violin. These exercises contrasted strikingly with the warm sentiments and rich ethnic flavor of Berlinski's "From the World of My Father, Suite No. 2" for cello and piano, which concluded the forum's formal program.

The concert of music of Washington composers--Berlinski and four younger colleagues--showed how lively the new music scene has become locally in the past generation. The program divided thematically into works exploring unconventional forms, techniques and combinations of performers; and duets with piano exploring a special range of nostalgic flavors. Daniel Asias's "Breath in a Ram's Horn," neatly paired with Berlinski's suite in the second half, was a simple but deeply effective setting of five poems by Paul Pines reflecting on his Eastern European Jewish heritage.

A highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Jeffrey Mumford's "as a spray of reflected meadowlight informs the air," for alto saxophone, violin and percussion--the composer's first work using a saxophone and one that showed a fascination with the instrument's timbre and expressive potentials. The interactions of human breath and vibrating strings with tuned percussion created a dramatic series of structural tensions and resolutions.

Haskell Small was represented by "Phoenix," a duet whose violin staccatos and limpid flute cadenzas showed a profound grasp of these instruments' special qualities.

"Three Chinese Poems" for soprano and cello by Lawrence Moss used the composer's own translations of short poems from the 8th and 9th centuries, with special effects in the cello reflecting the pictorial elements in the texts. Barnet's cello, used not only for its bowed and plucked strings but also as a wooden percussion instrument, hovered on the brink of words, while Pamela Jordan Schiffer's soprano voice ventured into instrumental sounds.

2000 The Washington Post Company  Used with Permission

March 1, 2001     

Forum Follows Function

By Philip Kennicott

The Washington Post, Saturday, March 3, 2001; Page C04

It's a relief, from time to time, to spend an evening with the Contemporary Music Forum. The composers and players who form the group don't put on a consistent evening of music, but that's not their mandate. Their mandate is to present new music, and they do so with solid and enthusiastic performances and a refreshingly eclectic sense of no boundaries or rules.

The Forum, which performed at the Corcoran Gallery's Hammer Auditorium Thursday evening, attracts the sort of audience that makes large music organizations salivate. It's wildly diverse with a good mix of young listeners. It is an attentive group but by no means a moribund one; dress and grooming suggest that there are a few Bohemian cells still operating in the District.

The music included a very polished new work by local composer Anthony Stark, two extended monologues for soprano and solo accompanying instrument (neither involving a piano), a piano-percussion duo and a jazzy ensemble piece full of charisma. From this mix, no grand conclusions about the state of music in the world, or Washington, emerged; but there was plenty of entertainment, and even those pieces that didn't quite work suggested the germ of something that might, with a little tweaking, be developed into new and superior compositions.

The dry academicism of music that has slowly filtered to the top of the professional performing world -- the polished lack of idiosyncrasy -- was mostly absent, and happily so.

Stark's "Chaconne Barcarolle" is a one-movement work for flute, clarinet, cello and piano, with the flutist occasionally using a piccolo as well. It has the sense of outdoorsy music in a nostalgic, French vein, like texturally dense Faure. The mood is tender, and even the contrasting material, quite conservative melodically, is genteel and burnished. Short soliloquies for the individual instruments are deftly woven into the flow of the work, including an odd sustained note from the piccolo that almost, but not quite, interrupts the progress. The composer has skillfully integrated instruments that can easily get unruly -- piccolo and clarinet are the principal suspects -- in a piece that is a sustained exercise in calm twilight.

Andrew Simpson's "phos," a score for piano and percussion, takes its title from the Greek word for light. The reference is explained in an erudite program note that doesn't, alas, cast much light on the music. Simpson frequently succumbs to an inequity of dramatic interest between the piano and the percussionist; the latter, in this case Barry Dove (a marvelous player), has at his disposal instruments that easily overwhelm the piano with sonic variety and color. Simpson's piano writing is dull; his percussion ideas are interesting.

Only well into the piece, when the percussionist leaves his battery of noisemakers and starts hammering directly on the strings of the piano (while the pianist keeps working the instrument from the keyboard) does the piece take on real life. Though short, it's a promising nugget, and one that could easily be developed into a larger score with substantially more interest.

Of the two monologues for soprano and solo instrument, Anna Larson's Ibsen-inspired songs (with cello accompaniment) and Elizabeth Walton Vercoe's "Herstory IV" (with marimba background), Larson's made the stronger impact. "Herstory IV" sets a particularly dreary trifle by poet May Swenson; the text setting doesn't have much dramatic profile, neither underscoring nor subverting the text in any coherent way. Swenson's poem would be better left collecting dust.

Larson's "Nora" is a satisfying, and extended, retelling of Ibsen's "A Doll's House" through the character of the loyal but misused wife. Larson aims at a direct dramatic retelling, no fuss or fanciness, and it works. It also leaves one wishing that, despite the interest of the cello line (and the very fine performance by cellist Lori Barnet), the work might be expanded for a larger ensemble.

Soprano Pamela Jordan Schiffer sang both works with a smallish voice, but marked engagement with the text.

Anthony Villa's "Monk Mode" is pure fun, a mix of improvisation and written-out material for flute, clarinet, double bass, percussion and piano. The chords have a dissonant richness but function in traditional fashion. The melodic material is whimsical and openhearted, and the prevailing sentiments range from cool to mellow. Once again Barry Dove was a marvel, and so, too, Victor Dvoskin, on bass.

2001 The Washington Post Company  Used with permission.

April 5, 2001     

CMF at the Corcoran

By Alan Greenblat

2000 The Washington Post Company.  Used with permission.

Composers who work in the digital realm toy with sound, seeking to reduce it to its essence as noise, the way abstract expressionists reduced paintings to their original form as paint. Electronic sounds can be arranged to be harrowing, jarring and tense but also startling and sometimes fresh, as the Contemporary Music Forum demonstrated Thursday at its annual electronic music concert at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The concert boasted two world premieres. Great Falls composer Frederick Weck's "Video II" is composed of several discrete, mostly quite bold sections. Abstract, brightly colored computer-generated images are matched to music of a fairly limited octave range with a rhythmic, incantatory quality that maintained a sense of tension throughout.

Only three of the program's nine works featured live performers. Soprano Pamela Jordan Schiffer gave a distraught, sometimes almost sharp reading of Allan Schindler's "Akhmatova Songs," her rising, elongated lines pitched against recorded sounds, a woman's recorded speaking voice and Lori Barnet's muscular, choppy cello.

Two other compositions received their Washington premieres. Elainie Lillios's 1998 "Arturo" was less busily layered than many of the other works. Lillios seemed to be getting at the idea of the quiet that surrounds sounds. Gilles Gobeil's 1985 work "Rivage" falls in the category of "electro-acoustic" music, which refers to a blend of electronics with recorded natural sounds. It's a pastiche of ringing phones, jackhammering alarm bells and silences interrupted by suddenly racing engines.

2001 The Washington Post Company.  Used with permission.

1999-2000 Season

October 7, 1999        

Sounds Of Mystery And Whimsy

By L. Peat O'Neil

The Washington Post, Tuesday, October 12, 1999, page C09

Though it's an uphill climb to develop audiences for contemporary classical composers, the path is easier when the compositions offer depth and intrigue, as did the Contemporary Music Forum's opening concert Thursday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The program opened with "Mystery," a song cycle for baritone (Randall Woodfield) and piano written by local composer Lori Laitman to accompany poems by Sara Teasdale.  One jaunty piece, "The Kiss," featured dissonant piano to a gentle harmonic baritone melody until the two lines came together in a metaphoric tonal resolution.

Stephen Hartke's challenging "King of the Sun," a tableau for four instruments, was ably presented by violinist Lina Bahn, violist Osman Kivrak, cellist Lori Barnet and pianist Jeffrey Watson.  A puzzling beginning by the strings, sounding like dry flesh dragged on rubber sheeting, segued into other unusual tones pulled from the instruments.  The complex--and riveting--third movement brought an organ's labored rumble from the piano, and at times Watson struck notes with one hand while reaching inside with the other to manipulate the wires, creating a reverberating afterlife for each note.

By now, John Cage has entered the standard repertoire, so his 1948 Suite for Toy Piano was the work by a recognized master that the Forum includes in its programs along with local and emerging composers.  And as pianist Clinton Adams explained, the instrument--perched on two straight-back chairs--was an authentic toy piano complete with shallow music-box tone, but a fun choice in an otherwise strictly grown-up program.

Helmut Braunlich's "Incantation," a world premiere, was written with Native American healing ceremonies as its spiritual background.   The array of homemade and ethnic percussion instruments played by Barry Dove simulated rattles and changs.  Nancy Stagnitta's flute and Paul Johnson on double bass braided some rather staid melodies around each other.

The final piece, Paul Jalbert's Trio, deserves to be heard more often.  From the vigorous attack through two tightly focused movements, violin passages buzz and return, sustaining a threatening mood by clashing with tolling piano chords.  In the end, the clam piano becomes through the chaos.

Copyright 1999 L. Peat O'Neill    Used with Permission.

November 8, 1999

The Art of Noise:  Electro-Acoustic Music

By Phllip Kennicott

The Washington Post, Wednesday, November 10, 1999, page C11

You may not have marked it on your calendar, arranged time off or brought the appropriate greeting cards, but Electro-Acoustic Music Week is upon us.  Monday marked the beginning of the festivities, which the Contemporary Music Forum celebrated with a concert at the Corcoran Gallery.

Electro-acoustic music is music that includes both the raw material of real sounds and an electronically derived component.  On Monday's program, one work ("Synchronisms No. 3" by Pulitzer Prize-winning Mario Davidovsky) was for cello and recorded electronic sounds; another ("Private Play" by Scott Wyatt) was played entirely on tape, but based on mostly peaceful sounds reminiscent of wind over bottle tops and distant chimes.

The electronic alteration of sounds is as common-place as elevator music today, but the field of electronic new music (which includes electro-acoustic works) is decidedly a specialist pursuit.  Sounds that we take for granted on Hollywood film tracks and in almost all popular music are based on the same techniques used by composers like Davidovsky and Wyatt (and many others).  It's no accident that some of the least interesting music on Monday's program (and music of electronic music in general) sounds like the screeches, groans and crashes of a horror film.

But there is much more to this kind of music than simply assaulting the listener with sounds that are easily reduced to acoustic referents:   Ah, that sounds like a door, that sounds like the ocean, that sounds like a bird call.  Electronic music, more than many other forms of music, is about how we hear.   And it is particularly capable of making us conscious of the psychological components in hearing.  Like abstract painting, it can reduce sounds to something elemental, or build elaborate structures that have relation to familiar sounds or music.

Monday's concert included a lucid and enteraining lecture by Robert Gibson, who demonstrated electronic techniques from the simple and maddnedly dull pure "sine" wave, to the ocean "tuned" to the key of G-sharp by filtering out unwanted tones and overtones.  If all of this sounds very like science fiction, it's worth remembering that electronic music has been with us for a long time now.  Its basic roots lie in the Italian futurist movement of the early 20th century, including the work of the polemicist Luigi Russolo.  In the 1920s, there came the ondes martinot and the theremin, two relatively simple but highly expressive electronic instruments that were embraced by a handful of adventurous composers.  Then the Moog synthesizer in the 1960s and the computer, which revolutionized the possibilities of music, in the 1980s.

In 1913, Rossolo wrote something relevant to the checkered history of electronic music.  In his "Art of Noises" he divided the orchestra of the future into six groups, which would be responsible for six basic sound groups: explosions, whistles, whispers, screeches, percussion effects and vocal or animal sounds.  His bizarre taxonomy is not terribly more expansive than the limited vocabulary used by most critics to describe electronic sounds.  The lack of a sophisticated critical language for talking about an art form can be deadly.  Add to this the fact that many elecronic composers have written compositions of symphonic length, which can overwhelm the already disoriented and wondering ear.  It's no wonder Electro-Acoustic Music Week isn't on the Hallmark horizon.

Monday's program worked, in part, because of the modest length of the works (most lasted four to five minutes).  The timings were printed in the program, which let listeners create a mental frame around the music, and experience the composers' efforts without impatience at their often indiscernible form and structure.

Frederick Weck's 'Video I" was a world premiere for video- and computer-generated sounds.  By MTV standards, the imagery and music seemed naive, though other listeners may argue it is classical and controlled.   Nonetheless, it was mesmerizing and pieces like this point the way to a more sophisticated exploration of the potential of music video.

Four live performers deserve special recognition:   cellist Lori Barnet, who performed the Davidovsky work; percussionist Barry Dove, who performed the mock-angry percussion and tape work "Move!" by Mara Helmuth; clarinetist Claire Eichhorn, who performed Steve Reich's "New York Counterpoint"; and pianist Clinton Adams, who integrated piano and tape in James Mobberley's "Caution to the Winds."  Elctronic tapes stop for no one, and all four performers gamely kept pace with few missteps.

Copyright 1999 Phillip Kennicott    Used with Permission.

December 2, 1999

Robert Parris's Light, Shining Through

By Pierre Ruhe

The Washington Post, Saturday, December 18, 1999, page C5

It wasn't supposed to happen this way, but the Contemporary Music Forum's evening of American music Thursday at the Corcoran Gallery became a tribute to Robert Parris, composer, George Washington University professor and occasional critic for The Washington Post during the '70s.  Parris died Dec. 5; before then, the premiere of his "Nocturnes Book II" had already been scheduled as part of this very full concert.

In this piece for five players (conducted here by William Wright), Parris explored theatrical ideas about foreground and background: The viola and cello often painted two-dimensional backdrops while the clarinet or percussion seemed like actors out front.

The 20-minute work opened delicately, with impish bass clarinet phrases, a wiry viola tune and a rumble from the timpani. This coalesced into a mostly abstract sound world, where audible touch points--such as unexpected percussion effects--guided the listener.   In the smiling second movement, the bass clarinet led off again, this time against a rhythmically jaunty bass line.  A martial third movement darkened the mood, cleared by a spirited finale.

Another premiere on the program, billed as the "final version" of Andrew Earle Simpson's "Nebula," is a thick, Brahmsian clarinet quartet, where each instrument gets a strong voice and keeps the restless forward motion rolling.  Like the Parris work, it gave the musicians plenty of trouble; one suspected a crack performance would yield more from the score.

Soprano Pamela Jordan sang two short song cycles.  The first, "Evening" by Harvard undergraduate Christopher Trapani, showed a fine understanding of poems by Anna Akhmatova, although the vocal writing was often awkward. Jordan had no problems with Juliana Hall's "Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush," based on letters by Emily Dickinson, seven songs with colorful piano accompaniment.

William Wright, in his other role as solo clarinetist, brought wit and warmth to Elliott Carter's "GRA."

Copyright 1999 Pierre Ruhe    Used with Permission.

February 3, 2000

Classics Touches at the Corcoran

By Joseph McLellan

Special to the Washington Post, Saturday, February 5, 2000, page C5

The Contemporary Music Forum gave a well-balanced program Thursday night at the Corcoran Gallery: two established classics, one composition that seems destined for classic status and two slighter but appealing works, all performed with technical skill and artistic dedication.

Lettie Beckon Alston's Four Short Pieces (1979) for soprano and piano opened the evening in a style that foreshadowed Lukas Foss's classic "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (1978) for soprano, flute, piano and percussion, which opened the second half. Foss is more elaborate than Alston, but both use enigmatic, evocative short poems (Alston four haiku by Matsuo Basho; Foss a haiku-flavored poem of Wallace Stevens) and both go far beyond traditional performance techniques--plucking the piano strings, for example, and having the soprano sing into the piano strings to cloak her voice in unearthly resonance.  Soprano Pamela Jordan Schiffer treated the texts with exemplary clarity and expressive power, pianist Jeffery Watson followed the composers' instructions with acrobatic grace, and flutist Carole Bean and percussionist Christopher Rose contributed vitally to the rich, suggestive atmosphere of the Foss work.

George Crumb's "Vox Balaenae" ("Voice of the Whale") for amplified flute, piano and cello is as much a theatrical as a musical experience. Bean, Watson and cellist Lori Barnet used masks, as requested by the composer.  They did bathe the stage in deep blue light as he suggested, but what mattered were the intriguing sound pictures they painted with great finesse.

Melinda Wagner, who numbers Crumb among her teachers, won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for music and, on the evidence of "Wing and Prayer" for clarinet (David Jones in this performance), cello, piano and percussion (1996), clearly deserves it.  This delicately exuberant, finely structured exploration of sound textures, conducted by William Wright, suffered not at all in comparison with the Foss and Crumb masterpieces.

The youngest composer on the program, Youn-Jin Lim, now working on her doctorate at Catholic University, was also the most conservative. In its world premiere by Claudia Chudacoff, her "First Ballet Class" for unaccompanied violin showed not only a firm grasp of technique but also a promising sense of musical narrative and description.

Copyright 2000 Joseph McLellan. Used with permission.

March 2, 2000

Contemporary Music Forum Reigns Over All It Surveys

By Joseph McLellan

The Washington Post, Saturday, March 4, 2000; Page C10

The Contemporary Music Forum, nearing the end of its two-year survey of American composers, continued to show remarkable vitality and variety in its programming Thursday night at the Corcoran Gallery. The evening opened with gentle, artfully paced and balanced dialogue in Anthony Stark's "Caprice" for piano (Jeffery Watson), flute (Nicolette Oppelt) and clarinet (Marguerite Baker) and ended in earsplitting but cleverly used percussion in David Lang's "Anvil Chorus."

Between these extremes came the ascetic, angular Nocturne for unaccompanied violin by Mel Powell, an aptly named Divertimento by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and a bright-toned, shimmering song cycle for soprano and percussion, "Even the Moon" by Caroline Mallonee, who was present for the occasion. The eight performers produced about as much stylistic variety as any group performing 20th-century music could generate in a couple of hours.

Mallonee made a strong first impression. She chose her texts from Carl Sandburg, who is not usually considered a "musical" poet like Edgar Allan Poe or Emily Dickinson--but his imagery's subtly resonant overtones provided a clear musical inspiration. Pamela Jordan Schiffer's mercurial upper register merged evocatively with the metallic, tuned percussion instruments that Barry Dove played, sometimes with a bow, sometimes with gentle mallet strokes, shifting to a skin drumhead when the text mentioned "white shoulders." The effect of these five pieces was magic; then Dove turned to "Anvil Chorus" with a spoken introduction that boiled down to "It's loud." It was also subtle, particularly in its contrasting use of found objects in two categories: resonant and nonresonant.

Violinist Elizabeth Field gave a striking performance of Powell's Nocturne and then joined in a beautifully styled performance of Zwilich's Divertimento for flute, clarinet, violin and cello (Lori Barnet). Zwilich's modern adaptation of an 18th-century form balanced old-fashioned charm with contemporary harmonic colors.

Copyright 2000 Joseph McLellan.  Used with permission

April 13, 2000

Going Easy on Contemporary Music

By John Pitcher

The Washington Post, Saturday, April 15, 2000; Page C075

If you viewed the Contemporary Music Forum's concert Thursday as a kind of musical State of the Union address, then you would have to assume everything in the music world today is just fine.

The Forum's program, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, gave the impression that 20th-century melodies are immensely accessible; that contemporary musical forms unfold with the elegance, grace and logic of a Mozart piano sonata; and that the notes themselves are all propelled forward by snappy jazz rhythms.

In fact, just about the only thing objectionable about the Forum's program was the almost complete lack of anything challenging or objectionable. The concert consisted largely of beguiling miniatures, wafer-thin art songs and jazzy ensemble numbers. The only hint that something unpleasant may indeed lurk in the musical universe was made indirectly through a performance of the John Corigliano and Mark Adamo song "Dodecaphonia"--a spoof on 20th-century 12-tone music. The song, which is completely tonal, recounts the mischievous activities of a sinister "serial" seductress named Twelve-Tone Rose. Think of it as an inside joke--the kind that's guaranteed to crack up a convention of music-theory teachers. For their part, soprano Pamela Jordan Schiffer and pianist Jeffery Watson provided a lighthearted and enjoyable interpretation.

Thursday's concert featured one belated world premiere--a performance of Robert Gibson's "Matin" for solo flute. Composed as a Christmas gift for Gibson's wife in 1975, "Matin" is by no means an important piece, but it is a charming one. The music's endearing and tonal melodies probably seemed trivial 25 years ago, when atonality still dominated in academia and minimalism was conquering the concert stage. Flutist Nancy Stagnitta gave the premiere a technically assured and sensitive reading.

Copyright 2000 John Pitcher.  Used with permission.