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March 16, 2010

Monument Piano Trio, Analog Arts Ensemble focus on Baltimore composers

This has been a good week for contemporary music around here, and that's even before the BSO delivers its jolt of works by living composers.

On Monday night at Morgan State University there was a repeat of a program originally presented at An die Musik last month (I missed it at the time, being deep in Mariinsky Land, drinking in the Russian opera feast at the Kennedy Center). I was grateful for that second chance.

Among the pieces I especially admired was the compact, tense new quartet for flute, violin, cello and piano by James Lee III called "Scenes from Eternity's Edge," given an admirable performance by the Monument Piano Trio and flutist Marcia Kamper of the Analog Arts Ensemble. The composer often uses biblical references in his work; this one draws from the books of Daniel and Revelation. Without knowing those associations, I suspect listeners would just as easily detect that a whole lot of drama is going on in the harmonically spicy, expertly crafted score.

The build up of energy in the first movement ("An Enigma Unveiled") is especially potent. The delicate sound world and sense of expectancy in the second ("Shabbat of Radiance") and the aggressive punch of the scherzo ("Until the Ancient of Days Came...") are equally intriguing. There are moments in the work, especially the finale, when Messiaen-like splashes of color pop through ecstatic chords. I think that closing movement could use a slightly longer coda -- the ethereal effect Lee creates would be doubly haunting with a little expansion.

Speaking of beautiful,

Jonathan Leshnoff's 2006 piece, "Song Without Words" for cello and piano, takes the listener on a brief, arresting journey; the harmonic motion seems to be searching for a destination that, even in the long-held final cello note, remains just out of reach. Cellist Darius Skoraczewski and pianist Michael Sheppard sensitively played this gem of a score.

Sheppard's own 2003 piece, "Let Beauty Awake," might serve as theme music for a lush British costume drama imported for "Masterpiece Theatre" -- not that there's anything wrong with that. The steadily flowing, folksy melodic line in the violin (warmly played by Igor Yuzefovich) is inflected with some atmospheric slides; the keyboard part includes Rachmaninoff crescendos (Sheppard delivered those with aplomb).

Rudolf Kamper's brand new Music for Five Players is wonderfully subtle, a maze of sustained, time-suspending chords and wisps of sound. The muted trumpet tones, articulated by the composer, added a particularly intriguing layer to the atonal fabric.

"Part," a 1993 piece by Stuart Sanders Smith, found Marcia Kamper, Skoraczewski and Sheppard occupying their own separate spaces onstage and performing, in effect, their own separate music. That independence nonetheless allowed for a clever kind of complex dialogue, interspersed with some very powerful silences.

On Wednesday night at Metro Gallery, Mobtown Modern offered the flip side of an earlier program devoted to low-register wind instruments. The high range this time came from flute and clarinet (and, unintentionally, at least one passing siren outside -- hey, this is Baltimore, not Mayberry.).

Katayoon Hodjati had the lion's share of the concert. She conjured up the dense world of Brian Ferneyhough's "Casandra's Dream Song" from 1970 -- the soloist described it as a nightmare to learn, but she negotiated the challenges in stride (and, to cheers from the audience, took a celebratory swig of beer after getting through it all).

The flutist also made a powerful case for Kaija Saariaho's "Noa, Noa" (1992), interacting with its vivid electronic counterpoint, and sailed through Jason Echardt's "Multiplicities (1993), with its schizophrenic battle between lyrical repose and aggressive squeals. Hodjati was joined by Marica Kamper for an edgy account of Philip Glass' "Piece in the Shape of a Square," a 1960s score that puts two flutes through increasingly intricate patterns as the players slowly walk around music stands placed in a square.

To close the program, clarinetist Jennifer Everhart offered something of a tour de force, brilliantly playing live to her own equally brilliant playing on recorded tape (bouncing among six speakers spread around the room) in Pierre Boulez' "Dialogue du l'ombre double" from 1985. The music is almost Bach-like in its joy and complexity, and Everhart made the music speak vividly.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:45 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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