The Dennis & Phillip Ratner Museum


Washington Musica Viva


September 11, 2007


            Washington Musica Viva, the extended shadow of pianist Carl Banner, has built a solid reputation for the group’s willingness to explore relatively unknown music, especially slightly “edgy” modern music that strays tantalizingly close to the outer borders that separate classical music from jazz or other ethnic strengths.  Banner can play anything from the modern repertoire with convincing enthusiasm, and watching the architecture of his constructed scores, designed to let a pianist play a long composition without turning pages or relying on a possibly undependable page-turner, will remind the listener of prestidigitation.


            Tuesday’s concert with alto saxophonist Charley Gerard could have been much more successful had a less inhibiting space been selected.  A relatively low ceiling height at the Ratner Museum was paired with a very large central opening over the musicians which doubtless pulled much of the sound up to the empty second floor.  But even the mystery of the disappearing sound could have been overcome had program notes been provided.


            The highpoint of the evening was the performance of Erwin Schulhoff’s “Hot Sonate” of 1930.  This music suggested where George Gershwin might have been going had he been able to avoid a certain schmaltziness that made even his most impressive classical compositions enduringly popular, a little too easy on the ear.


            This has been a good year in the Washington area for Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, whose four tangos comprising “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” were brilliantly performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at The Music Center at Strathmore in April.   Piazzolla’s “Tango-Etudes” were less successful last night.  The Ratner Museum’s killing impact on sound made Gerard’s saxophone uniformly too loud, when the six movements needed a deliberate modulation among emotional textures and a more artful blending of piano and saxophone.


            The opening composition by Jean Franćaix, “Cinq danses exotiques,” was very reminiscent of Poulenc, musical art of the calculated dissonance and a variegated–even roving–syncopation.  Carl Banner’s playing is especially notable when he moves deftly through such “moderne” music.


            This concert needed at least one moment without the alto saxophone, both to give the audience’s ears an opportunity to clear and to provide an even stronger contrast between the sounds of two instruments rarely paired for chamber music purposes.  Here again, program notes could have provided vital information about the concert repretoire for the alto saxophone and whether the pieces selected were the most outstanding works for alto saxophone of the various composers, or merely illustrative selections.


Stephen Neal Dennis