In performance at Goucher, Lewis sticks to his own style

March 24, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Throughout his career, the composer Robert Hall Lewis has remained true to such Italian words as combinazioni and invenzione in his titles. And as last night's concert of his music at Goucher College -- where Mr. Lewis has taught since 1957 -- proved, he has remained essentially true to a style of composing.

That style can be described as angular, cerebral and terse; it is rather like the abstract expressionism that was flourishing in the art world when Mr. Lewis came to maturity. In the years since, there has been no dallying with quotations from earlier music (he is not the sort to rattle around in the attics of other composers), no recidivism into romanticism and no circus shows with mixed media. He is a composer who follows his own lead with an integrity at least as fierce as that of his music.

And much of that music is interesting. On last night's program the two pieces that impressed me the most -- a deadline prevented me from listening to the String Quartet No. 1 -- were purely instrumental: Archi for piano solo and Combinazioni IV for cello and piano. The former, brilliantly played by Lisa Weiss, consists of nine short sections played without pause. The piece is excitingly paced, beautifully organized and full of drive. It has the kind of never-let-up momentum one associates with such works as Mendelssohn's Variations Serieuses or Beethoven's C Minor Variations.

The work for cello and piano was perhaps even more interesting. Here, seven sections (including solo cadenzas for each instrument) follow each other with logic, wit and lyrical expressiveness. Mr. Lewis is a master of instrumental color, and the sonic effects he achieves from both instruments and the ways in which he continually contrasts and combines their timbres were fascinating. Cellist David Hardy and pianist Kathryn Brake played the work with the beauty and intelligence one hears all too infrequently in performances of more familiar music.

Indeed, all the performances were outstanding. None was better than a performance of the Black Mass-like A Due V by soprano Elizabeth Lawrence, whom I have admired in the past, and by pianist Mark Markham, about whom I have received glowing reports for years.

The opening work on the program was Combinazioni III for oboe-English horn, narrator and percussion, in which exquisite instrumental textures were wedded to a silly text by poet Jean Rubin that turned assonance, consonance and echoic effects into cheap tricks. The excellent performers were Sara Watkins, oboe and English horn; Kuljit Rehncy, and John Shirley-Quirk, narrator.

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