There is no easy way to review last night's concert by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It was invigorating to hear musicians of such impeccable talent perform some of the newest music available. It was challenging to try and understand these works. It was even heartening that the audience was so receptive to them.
It was also deeply unsatisfying.
Each work on the program contained ideas of prodigious imagination and intellect. There can be no denying the skill that went into their composition; yet, skill is not enough. Each piece was so unrelievedly complex that once the mind gave into fatigue, they all began to sound the same. If music is an art of self-expression, that cannot be a satisfying result.
Two works in particular were symptomatic of this problem. Charles Wuorinen's String Trio, composed in 1967, began well enough. A quiet drone, alternately played by the cello and viola, accompanied the solo violin whose figurations evoked the sound of the Indian sitar. The piece became progressively more agitated, employing every color the strings could produce. What was at first intriguing became monotonous. Each line was forced to carry so much structural and intellectual weight that they eventually collapsed under their own weight.
Ronald Caltabiano's "Quilt Panels" (1990) for string trio with clarinet, horn and piano, drew its title from the national AIDS quilt exhibited in Washington D.C. It is a worthy subject for a musical response and Caltabiano's rage and grief were clearly exhibited in this work. Opening with an impassioned introduction, the music grew into periods of unsteady calm. The piece became progressively more agitated with dense instrumental shrieks interrupting unexpected outbursts of sweetness and lyricism. What was at first moving became self-consciously theatrical, robbing the music of its heft and power.
Watching these immensely gifted musicians on stage, it was easy to forget how difficult this music is to play. They were tired, and rightly so, by the time they played Brahms' Quartet for Piano and Strings in G minor. Their performance also sounded tired and didn't really rise to their previous level of energy until late in its third movement.
This work, in comparison to the others, seemed almost naively clear and straightforward. Even a little decedant. The irony is that it too is incredibly complex.