The debut program of Soundings, a new music series at the Nasher Sculpture Center, was literally a smashing success (if you think I am misusing the word “literally,” you don’t know Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, which were performed Friday night).
Soundings’ opener included Friday night’s program and two sessions to be played at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. today. There will be further programs in February, April and June.
In preliminary remarks, artistic director Seth Knopp said that the series will have a two-fold focus: tradition and innovation in music. True to this aim, the musicians switched back and forth Friday night between Mario Davidovsky, Handel, Davies and Beethoven — two living and two dead composers.
The Juilliard Quartet opened the evening with Davidovsky’s quartet Dank an Opus 132. Afterward they veered from tradition by discussing the work and its relation to Beethoven’s Opus 132 quartet (hence Davidovsky’s title). To illustrate some points, they played excerpts from both works.
Then everybody moved upstairs from Nasher’s lower-floor auditorium for wine and hors d’oeuvres. After this refreshment break, they moved back down for Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Opus 6, No. 11, played by A Far Cry. A group of talented and highly skilled young people, they gave an infectious performance of Handel’s lively and joyous music.
Then everybody trooped upstairs again for Eight Songs for a Mad King. The eponymous monarch of Davies’ work was George III of England, whose policies led to the original Tea Party. He also suffered from a truly bizarre psychiatric disorder (it’s a little disconcerting to think that the United States may owe its existence to mental illness).
In Davies’ monodrama an actor-singer portrays the mad king with appropriately bizarre words and actions and a wild vocal line that tests the limits of the human voice. He also smashes a violin at the end.
Kelvin Thomas gave a brilliant performance, backed by Music From Yellow Barn, another young group of musicians. Some of them played in large beribboned cages, a reference to one of King George’s madnesses — he tried to teach birds to sing.
Then the audience went downstairs once more for a return to sanity: Beethoven’s Opus 132 quartet. The Juilliard Quartet — violinists Nick Eanet and Ronald Copes, violist Samuel Rhodes and cellist Joel Krosnick — gave a magnificent, deeply involving performance. They played recently in Fort Worth’s Bass Hall, which is really too large for chamber music; the Nasher’s intimate auditorium was a much more favorable environment.
Friday’s program began at 6 and ended shortly before 10, but the great variety of performances and playing spaces and the frequent breaks made for an informal atmosphere and kept the evening from becoming a test of patience. Maybe some other groups should consider this experiment.
Today’s performances, by the way, will not repeat Friday’s, nor will the Juilliard Quartet be involved. There will be plenty of new music and a couple of oldies.