Tuesday, January 28, 2014

VERGE Ensemble - Modern Mystics - 01/26/14

Mohammed Fairouz: Ka-Las
Paul Rudy: East: Wind
John Luther Adams: High Places
Paul Rudy: South: Fire
Paul Rudy: November Sycamore Leaf
Paul Rudy: West :Water
Gareth Farr: Kembang Suling
Paul Rudy: North: Earth
Mark Winges: Shapeshifter
Lina Bahn: Violin
David Jones: Clarinet
Jonathan Richards: Viola
William Richards: Percussion
Tobias Werner: Cello
Davie Whiteside: Flute

Now that the non-stop craziness of the holiday season is long gone and normal life has resumed, I figured that it was high time to pay a little visit to our nation's capital. The choice of this past weekend was mainly motivated by the presence of dear friends of mine in the area as well as the likely reduced number of tourists in the city and travelers on the road during the first month of the year. The hope for a quick and easy trip was, however, mercilessly rushed some by road works and a major accident on the Baltimore-Washington parkway, but we made it at the end.
Finding at least one music performance during those couple of days turned out to be surprisingly challenging. Even the timing of the National Symphony Orchestra's concerts, which is usually predictable, was off the mark and did not work out this time. But my persistence was eventually rewarded when I found a contemporary chamber music concert intriguingly titled "Modern Mystics" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which would be presented by the museum's ensemble-in-residence, the 40-year old VERGE Ensemble, on Sunday afternoon. How about that?

The program consisted of five short musical works interspersed between four even shorter pieces of recorded electronic music by Paul Rudy, which represented nature's four elements. A computer is not the first conduit that would come to mind to convey nature's manifestations, but those musical snapshots were delightfully evocative: "East: Wind" fiercely blew while church bells rang, "South: Fire" crackled and generated an intense heat, "West: Water" mercilessly rained on us as a thunderstorm was booming, and "North: Earth" featured, among other bucolic sounds, a bird singing and a river gurgling. Just as we were sitting in an urban amphitheater in downtown Washington, DC, Mother Nature kept on making appearances that were at the same time organic and high-tech.
The concert opened with "Ka-Las" ("Time" in Sanskrit) by Mohammed Fairouz, the only composer on the program whose name I was slightly familiar with. Winningly combining the two unusual bedfellows that are the viola and the clarinet, the piece brought out the best of the former's lower register and the latter's upbeat sounds. By turns fierce, whimsical and melancholic, the two instruments played off and with each other for a downright virtuosic journey. I did not know it at the time, but this compelling mix of appealing melodies and spiritual influences ended up being the most vibrantly lyrical, unfussily accessible work of the whole afternoon.
John Luther Adams' "High Places" was composed as an homage to a friend of his, with whom he shared a deep love for music and Alaska. And sure enough, both elements were unmistakably present in the three movement for solo violin which were epitomizing three moments of their long-lasting friendship. In Lina Bahn's expert hands, the sometimes crystalline, sometimes whistling, occasionally grating, but always pure-to-the-core, sounds were subtly reminiscent of emotional turmoil and natural wonders.
Paul Rudy was also on the program with his computerized composition "November Sycamore Leaf", which took its inspiration from a photography by Missouri photographer John Hess, which he had received as a Christmas card. On Sunday, over the course of about nine minutes, not only did we get to marvel at a detailed musical description of the leaf in all its endless intricacies, but we got to watch an accompanying video of its metamorphosis too. Barely perceptible at first, the visual changes eventually picked up pace all the way to a spectacularly colorful finale.
At this point, New Zealand's superstar composer and percussionist Gareth Farr injected a bright touch of exoticism into our cold January afternoon with his gamelan-influenced "Kembang Suling". Whether blending together or engaging in an increasingly spirited dialog, the flute and marimba let their ethereal but nevertheless assertive personalities discreetly make themselves heard before vividly blossoming for a fun trip to far-off Asia.
Introduced by the composer himself, Mark Winges' "Shapeshifter" was a VERGE commission for flute, clarinet, violin, viola and cello. As the title indicates, there was a lot going on among the various instruments, which all seemed to freely wander in and out of the fray, forming at times likely or less likely alliances, coming up with ever-changing rhythms and unexpected harmonies. The five musicians onstage bravely and brilliantly kept on shifting the shapes, creating a music as unpredictable, elusive and, yes, mystical, as the human soul. Then it was back to the cold Sunday evening.

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