A moving, inclusive `Awakening'

CRITIC'S CORNER -- MUSIC

September 11, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

On the same day that Osama bin Laden happened to release another defiant tape, a sizable audience gathered at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park for a provocative presentation by the Kronos Quartet titled Awakening: A Musical Mediation on the Anniversary of 9/11.

Alternately moving, confrontational, reflective and exasperating, the 13-part work, brilliantly performed Friday night, brings together music from a variety of sources, cultures and times to create a roughly 100-minute exercise in performance art. It was first performed last year in San Francisco.

Instead of an American-centric exploration of the events in 2001, Awakening incorporates music of the Islamic world to balance harmonic language from our own. I can imagine some listeners being annoyed by such inclusiveness, but the piece underlines how the whole world, not just our portion of it, was severely wounded on that horrid day.

In another context, Terry Riley's soothing work One Earth, One People, One Love might come across as slight or cloying; here, placed after the intense central portion of the evening, the music registered compellingly. Likewise, Muslim calls to prayer and an Iraqi folk song, arranged for the quartet's superbly matched string players and placed at the start of the work, took on added significance.

For that matter, all of the selections used to create Awakening are loaded with layers of meaning. Too much so in the case of Armenia, a 1983 piece originally by the German band Einsturzende Neubauten that gives a new meaning to "heavy metal" -- the Kronos musicians left their regular instruments at periodic intervals to hammer ferociously on a seemingly random pile of metal objects, from pots and pans to a rusty bathtub.

When cellist Jeffrey Zeigler operated an acetylene torch, the sight of the flying sparks certainly had an eerie impact, but there was something forced about this whole exercise in angst and rage. By the same token, Michael Gordon's overlong The Sad Park, with its monotonous string harmonies and electronically morphed recordings of children describing the World Trade Center attacks, sounded belabored and banal.

More persuasive was a 1969 score by Aulis Sallinen, Winter Was Hard, arranged for the quartet and children's chorus. The sight of the Thomas Pullen Middle School Choir slowly taking up positions around the Kronos members was a nice bit of theater, a symbol of innocence; their beautifully molded sound completed the haunting effect.

Dinnerstein and Bach

You can't buy the kind of publicity recently enjoyed by Simone Dinnerstein, the New York pianist whose self-produced recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations has moved her career into high gear in recent weeks. You also can't keep that kind of buzz going without the genuine musical artistry to back it up. Dinnerstein certainly has it, as evidenced by her performance Sunday afternoon at An die Musik.

The capacity-plus crowd, shoehorned into the small concert space, seemed to hang on every note as Dinnerstein offered her personal take on the Goldberg Variations, one of the most imaginative and powerful works in the keyboard repertoire. She didn't try to imitate the sound of a harpsichord, and she didn't turn overindulgently pianistic, steering an effective course somewhere in between.

An obvious sense of affection flowed through the performance, right from the stately pace and gentle phrasing of the opening "aria." In each variation on that elegant theme, Dinnerstein found something interesting and meaningful to say, achieving remarkable poignancy in the minor-key Variation 25, for example, enchanting delicacy in Variation 28.

There was throughout a wonderful sense of spontaneity in the playing, with each shift of dynamics or articulation becoming a fresh shard of light that revealed the music's architectural and expressive beauty.

The Goldberg Variations has inspired any number of interpretations. Dinnerstein's, valuing poetry over virtuosity, proved unusually and deeply satisfying.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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