« Monday Musings: Everybody's a critic (and should be) | Main | Lyric Opera Baltimore continues inaugural season with buoyant 'Figaro' »

March 12, 2012

Guest blog post: Logan K. Young on Cygnus Ensemble at Library of Congress

Here's a guest bog post about an intriguing program last week in DC-- TIM

By Logan K. Young

Some three years after her death, and the specter of pianist Dina Koston still looms over the Beltway. Having co-founded, with Leon Fleisher, the Theater Chamber Players -- which would become the first resident ensemble at the Smithsonian and Kennedy Center -- in her twilight years, she had gone back to her first love: composition.

A former student of both master teacher Nadia Boulanger and the Darmstadt masterclasses, ultimately, Koston’s retreat to writing proved the wiser move. In fact, as I discovered Wednesday night at the Library of Congress, if things had turned out differently, Koston might’ve been remembered as a composer, first.

Apropos, then, that the inaugural concert of the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music would begin with Samuel Beckett’s “Ohio Impromptu.”

A brief but haunting meditation on loss and regret, Beckett’s playlet from 1982 was one of the last dramatic works he ever wrote. Late in his own life, here he’s worn down his characteristic dread to only the bare essentials: a Reader, a Listener, a table and a hat. Under the no-nonsense direction of Studio Theatre’s Joy Zinoman, Ted van Griethuysen ...

read his part with stoic grace.

“Little is left to tell,” the Reader intones to his identically clad Listener (whom scholars suggest is but a proxy for the same person.) Unlike the tramps and their pratfalls that temper "Waiting for Godot’s" existentialism, true, “Ohio Impromptu” is stark for stark’s sake. But as the organizing theme for a concert of new music, once again, Dina Koston was dead on.

From the minimally-inclined (Morton Feldman) to Minimalism incarnate (Baltimore’s son Philip Glass), contemporary composers have mined Beckett’s mire more so than any modern writer. Be it English or his adopted French, there’s a musicality all its own to his way with words.

Koston no doubt heard this herself; her teacher at Darmstadt, Luciano Berio, had used excerpts from Beckett’s novel "The Unnamable" in his own magnum opus, "Sinfonia." Regardless, I know I heard it in Koston’s piece from 2009, “Distant Intervals.”

Written for the idiosyncratic instruments of the Cygnus Ensemble -- double winds (one of which is also double reed), two strings and a pair of plectrals including guitar, mandolin and tenor banjo -- Koston’s orchestration called for more forces still. But even as the Coolidge Auditorium stage threatened to buckle under the added personnel, strangely enough, the James Baker-led group rarely got louder than a mezzo-forte.

Just as Beckett’s piece needn’t shout, Koston’s work achieved its titular distance in hushed, almost reverent tones. Her intervals, while angular and decidedly atonal, seemed most concerned with restraint. Nathan Botts’ trumpet occasionally broke this character, but I likened those interruptions to the Listener’s knuckle raps from “Ohio Impromptu.”

In the play, the Listener knocks on the table to signal the Reader to repeat certain phrases (cf. “Nothing is left to tell...”). It’s really his only means of communication. Listening, myself, to Koston’s “Distant Intervals” immediately after, I began to hear a similar kind of registral hopelessness. Errant, displaced notes made for a serial-sounding score -- one who’s internal logic I could not grasp with just the one sitting.

In reality, hers is a difficult piece because it’s a vulnerable piece. Given the overall quietude Cygnus and friends were able to achieve during its performance, and Koston’s “Distant Intervals” proved the perfect companion to a melodrama that’s all about finding one. Little is left to tell, indeed.

Here's a video of the Becket piece performed by Jeremy Irons:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:42 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected