National Symphony plunges into CrossCurrents with Oliver Knussen
The Kennedy Center has been awash in CrossCurrents, a remarkable week of contemporary music created by composer Oliver Knussen and pianist Joseph Kalichstein. The festival wraps up Sunday.
I wish I could have gotten down there for a lot more of it. My only opportunity to get caught up in the riptide came Friday night, when I heard Knussen conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in the kind of program that would be unthinkable and unsellable in Baltimore: Four works, the oldest one from 1993, the others from the 21st century. Not that it it a fire at the NSO box office; judging by the modest turnout Friday, you wouldn’t have trouble getting tickets for the final presentation Saturday night – and it’s well worth checking out.
This is, for starters, a good chance to hear music by composers who don’t tend to pop up on the Baltimore Symphony’s radar – two Americans, Gunther Schuller and Augusta Read Thomas; two from the UK, Julian Anderson and Knussen. The latter was represented here by his 2002 Violin Concerto, a taut, concise work that effortlessly fuses lyricism and spice. It’s at once a virtuosic and anti-virtuosic concerto, more about intercommunication of soloists and orchestra than audience dazzle, more about intimacy and complexity of musical discourse than grand statement. Leila Josefowicz was the brilliant soloist, playing from memory (that was impressive in itself) and articulating the often intricate, high-lying melodic lines with ...
Anderson’s Imagin’d Corners from 2002 (the title comes from a John Donne verse) was a terrific opener. Here, the principal action is in the horns, called upon to use natural overtones, sounds we think of as unnatural – the microtonal notes between “normal” notes. The effect wasn’t jarring, but tingling, especially when the finely executed horn bursts were balanced by a brilliant array of percussive colors in the orchestra. A final horn yelp ended this cool piece with a refreshing jolt.
Thomas’ Helios Chorus I (2006), an exercise in gradual crescendo that involves lots of intricate activity in each section of the ensemble, utilizes a freely dissonant language with a disarming naturalness.
Schuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Of Reminiscences and Reflections (1993) is the composer’s response to the death of his wife. The emotional force at work is unmistakable, especially in passages of aggressive percussion and biting brass. The middle of the imaginatively structured score’s five, unbroken movements, is quite affecting, with the woodwinds introducing a gentle rocking theme that creates a bittersweet calm. It’s not entirely a dark piece; there are moments of great brightness and rhythmic jauntiness as well. The NSO gave a solid account of the work.
Throughout the concert, Knussen provided straightforward guidance. As his amusing remarks to the audience made clear, he’s quite the character, but his conducting tended to be more about efficiency than personality. I wouldn't have minded more kick and push at times.
In addition to the repeat of this program on Saturday, Knussen will lead members of the NSO Sunday night in a chamber music program that offers works by Anderson, Thomas, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Sean Shepherd and, of course, Knussen.