This past evening a string subset of the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra played a lush, majestic, sweeping, potently relevant program of works by 20th and 21st century composers. The performance validated conventional wisdom in real estate bubble-era New York: the fringes are where the most cutting-edge artists are supposed to be. Ask yourself how many members of the Philharmonic actually walk to work: it’s a fair bet that a good percentage of this talented ensemble did.
The group echoed Music Director Chris Whittaker’s poise on the podium, at least with as much poise as a string section can maintain playing distinctly troubled music. The central theme was Japanese, comprising works by composers with Japanese heritage, setting up a harrowing look back at the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fukushima wasn’t addressed, but it might as well have been, considering how plaintive and elegaic the overall ambience was.
Both the opening and concluding pieces, Kenji Bunch’s Supermaximum and Christopher Theofanidis’ A Thousand Cranes opened with percussive rustles from the bass section, a neat pairing. The former was an alternately kinetic and stark interweave of 19th century gospel-inflected pentatonic melody and more distinctly Asian motives. Permeated with the call-and-response of chain gang chants, it spoke for itself as a reminder of how little has changed in over a century.
The showstopper was an understatedly aching, enveloping take of Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem For String Orchestra. Moving gracefully from an austere pavane to stabbing close harmonies that foreshadow Julia Wolfe’s work, and then to to cellular Glass-ine phrasing, the group locked in on its relentless, overcast atmosphere.
Karen Tanaka’s Dreamscape suite often had a similarly circular but more distinctly nebulous effect, their group parsing its starry pointillisms and sparely memorable hooks with delicacy to match their lustre, harpist Tomina Parvanova and concertmaster Mark Chien tracing lively comet tails and deep-space bubbles.
Theofanidis’ piece was inspired by the Japanese tradition of making paper cranes. As the myth goes, producing a thousand of them allows for a wish to come true. That activity became a meme among those stricken with radiation poisoning and all kinds of other horrible illnesses after August of 1945.
The triptych is a hard piece to play, partly because it covers so much ground, emotionally speaking. There was unexpectedly calm jubilance in the opening overture of sorts, which disappeared as reality sank in. The group nimbly tackled the precisely dancing pizzicato section and then let the mournful washes afterward linger. The steady procession up to a decidedly unresolved ending was just as poignant.
The orchestra are staging monthly concerts this spring: the next one is March 23 at 3 PM at at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, 729 W 181st St. just up the hill from the 1 train, with works by Korngold, Britten, Anna Clyne and Michael Torke. Admission is free; $25 gets you into the reception afterward and for the rest of the season as well.