The Washington Post
By Anne Midgette
May 2, 2016
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How a composer helped put his 78th birthday on the map

It was an unorthodox tribute to an unorthodox composer. This past weekend, the Library of Congress and the Phillips Collection teamed up to honor the 78th birthday of Frederic Rzewski, the maverick pianist and composer, with three concerts and three world premieres. The first two were at the Library of Congress (Saturday’s was reviewed by Patrick Rucker); the third, at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, was an utter delight. It feted Rzewski as performer, as colleague and as composer of some pretty wonderful pieces, including the longest-ever non-repetitive work for solo piano, “The Road,” an 8-hour opus, heard here in a more manageable excerpt. Rzewski responded with the new work, a warm, vivid piece for violin and piano called, deceptively, “Notasonata.” Call it what you will: This one is a keeper.

There wasn’t a weak link in the afternoon, a highlight of the Phillips Collection’s 75th anniversary season. Rzewski opened the proceedings with the “Road” excerpt, a section titled “The same old story,” based on a novel by Ivan Goncharov, which appears as Mile 52 of the 64-mile journey. It’s a set of explorations, carried out in short bursts on the keyboard: now with formidable power, now with lyricism, and often with accompanying external noise: tongue-clicks, foot-stamps, a half-whistle, all communicating something human and probing and unfinished while Rzewski, a gifted pianist, drew huge masses of sound from the keys.

Then the pianist Ursula Oppens — who gave the world premiere of “The People United . . .” in 1976 at the Kennedy Center — and the violinist Jennifer Koh, an assured contemporary-music virtuoso, lit into “Notasonata,” which opens with rich, singing lines from the violin, channeling the spirit of Shostakovich that Rzewski evoked in his program notes. Belying its title, the piece offered a spectrum of sonata-like gestures and movements: that singing theme from the violin; a wispy brief engaging scherzo, gentle treads from the piano, like clouds of mud rising beneath the violinist’s forward motion. But the music kept interrupting itself to examine, question and sometimes play with whatever it was doing at a particular moment. It’s a piece to sink your teeth into, or your ears, and I look forward to hearing it again.

Other composers, on the concert’s second half, made a perfect pendant to the first. Rzewski and Oppens sat side by side to perform Morton Feldman’s ‘Piano Four Hands,” a Calder mobile of a piece that hangs individual notes, shivering and trembling, to circle through the air, sometimes colliding with each other.

Lou Harrison was another American maverick increasingly appreciated these days as a pioneer — as the PostClassical Ensemble recently reminded us with a Harrison tribute in March. It isn’t often that you get to hear a major piece by him twice in the matter of a few weeks, but his “Grand Duo,” performed here by Oppens and Koh, was just done by Tim Fain and Michael Boriskin at the PostClassical concert. It shares many features of Rzewski’s “Notasonata”: Both are significant works on a significant scale that take on musical traditions with stylistic independence, and that allow the instruments to sing. Koh was beautifully incisive; Oppens, firm and gentle. They brought the piece into sharp relief and communicated their own delight in it, particularly in the fifth and last movement, a zany, increasingly tangled Polka. I’ve seldom left a concert hall humming Lou Harrison. Give me another chance to hear that new Rzewski piece and I may come out humming it, instead.

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