Concerts rekindle emotions of Sept. 11

Review: After sounds signifying violence, come mournful melodies and notes of joy.

October 08, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Is it possible that music, like so many other things, cannot be entirely the same as it was before Sept. 11? I wondered about that over the weekend, listening to one program that made direct reference to the horrific events and another that unintentionally resonated with emotions left over from the devastation.

The music itself had nothing to do with the terror and the tragedy, but sounded somehow more profound and important now. Even a piece by Bach written more than 281 years ago seemed to speak in a different way, to burrow more deeply into the senses. Of course, it could just be the famed power of suggestion; maybe music is still just music. But I doubt it.

Friday night, the annual, intimate Carriage House Concert Series on the grounds of the historic Evergreen House opened with a recital by cellist Liwei Qin. The young Shanghai-born Australian decided to adjust his program in light of Sept. 11.

He retained Bach's C minor Cello Suite, which he delivered with uncommon security of tone and articulation, as well as depth of expression. He then added an American composition, in solidarity with this country; his choice was George Crumb's brilliant Sonata for Solo Cello. And he put a new connotation on a 1978 work by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks - Gramata cellam, or Book for Cello.

The Crumb selection was ideal, reflecting American creativity, inquisitiveness, originality. It is a terrifically difficult assignment for any cellist, but Qin, who won top prize in the 2001 Naumberg International Cello Competition, sailed through the complexities with aplomb.

Qin told the audience that the Vasks score conveyed to him all the violence of the terror attack and the resultant sadness. Just as Qin was about to play, a wailing siren in the distance pierced the still air, providing a chilling reminder of the sirens of Sept. 11.

That unwelcome sound was still fading away as the cellist launched into the aggressive, brutally dissonant first movement, which sent images of New York and Washington flooding back. The second movement's eerie slitherings and mournful melodies (periodically given a haunting counterpoint hummed by the cellist) were almost too much to bear. As the music gradually evaporated in gentle wisps of sound, it was like seeing a glowing field of candles suddenly, inexplicably extinguished.

This was stunning music - and stunning music-making.

The sound of sirens deliberately filled the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Saturday night as the National Symphony Orchestra wrapped up its extraordinary "More Drums Along the Potomac" Percussion Festival. They were part of the battery employed in Edgard Varese's ever-fresh Ionisation from 1931.

Thirteen players under Leonard Slatkin's expert guidance produced the score's prismatic sounds that normally seem so delectably abstract, but now took on an ominous undercurrent.

Two new concertos for percussion and orchestra were at the heart of the program, both featuring phenomenal Scottish-born percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

George Tsontakis' large, substantive work called Mirologhia, receiving its world premiere at the festival, is steeped in imagery of untimely death and consolation.

The American-born Tsontakis has drawn upon his heritage here; the title refers to a specific kind of Greek mourning, and there are quotations from Greek Orthodox chants in the score. But how could this music be heard now without thinking about Sept. 11?

It's a darkly poetic, cohesive work in six movements, as imaginatively written for the orchestra as for the soloist. Glennie's handling of a wide array of instruments had visceral, emotive power, and Slatkin drew superb support from the ensemble.

This performance quality carried over into the Percussion Concerto by Chinese-born Chen Yi, a 1998 work receiving its U.S. premiere. She puts a good deal of ancient Beijing Opera into the piece, calling upon the soloist to deliver a Chinese poem in one movement while manipulating all sorts of percussion instruments, many of them traditional Oriental ones.

An arresting blend of Eastern and Western sounds and techniques results in a concerto with an underlying, unbroken vitality.

The poem in Yi's work speaks of the continual cycle of sorrow and joy. It was good to be reminded of the brighter side of things by that concerto, as well as the program's finale - Silvestre Revueltas' 1939 orchestral showpiece La noche de los mayas. That piece has a big structural problem (the finale doesn't know when to quit), but Slatkin and the NSO, especially the expanded percussion section, made the most of it in a taut, bravura performance.

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