Arts Desk

Today: 21st Century Consort at Smithsonian American Art Museum

At a time when early music is a hot ticket for chamber groups (in D.C., see Bach Sinfonia and Opera Lafayette), it’s nice to know there are ensembles that are as devoted to new music. Around here, no one is more devoted than the 21st Century Consort. Since its 1975 founding, the group has cherry-picked the best local talent—starting with its leader, Folger Consort founder and former UMD Music School director Christopher Kendall—to perform its often risky repertoire: largely untested works by living composers, balanced with the occasional 20th Century crowd-pleaser like Copland.

You won’t find much in the way of familiar crowd-pleasers in their program today at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where they serve as the resident ensemble. Instead, you’ll get a bold selection of pieces for strings, piano, winds and voice, all written since 1980 and exhibiting a variety of approaches ranging from noise-rocker and "steampunk" (his words, not mine) synth-maker Mark Kuss to new tonalist Robert Beaser.

The 21st Century Consort understands this kind of stuff can be hard for audiences to grasp. Their concerts are frequently multimedia, with visual flair to lend the music some additional point of reference. Today’s program will open with a debut of local filmmaker Paul Moon’s Simple Machines, an eight-minute film about the world's largest diesel engine. Moon has collaborated the Consort since last season, beginning with his documentary on American composer Samuel Barber, and continuing with a time-lapse film, Time Crunch. The film was tightly synchronized to a recorded performance which the Consort mimicked live, which according to Moon “wasn't a walk in the park for the musicians.” So for Simple Machines, Moon went for a looser format and recorded score by Luke DuBois.

DuBois, in turn, completes the circle between the program and its venue. Multiplicity Multiplicity is meant to be a musical accompaniment to SAAM’s ongoing exhibition, Multiplicity. DuBois, in addition to being a composer, is a visual artist, and his series of eye charts “Hindsight is Always 20/20” is one of the works featured in the exhibit.

The 21st Century Consort performs at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium at 8th and G streets NW today at 5 p.m., with a preconcert discussion at 4 p.m. $20.

photo: still from Simple Machines

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