A thrilling chamber work confronts Georgetown’s history with slavery

In celebration of its tenth season, the estimable experimental ensemble Hub New Music made its Kennedy Center debut on Thursday night, performing a Fortas Chamber Music program of newly commissioned works in the Center’s subterranean Club at Studio K space. This selection of four short pieces was anchored by the D.C. premiere of “Requiem for the Enslaved,” a 10-movement liturgical meditation from Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Carlos Simon.

Founded in Boston in 2013, the quartet of flutist Michael Avitabile, clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich, violinist/violist Meg Rohrer and cellist Jesse Christeson has emerged as a prime mover of piping hot 21st century repertoire. This season, the ensemble will release “a distance, intertwined,” a collaborative album with shakuhachi player and Silkroad regular Kojiro Umezaki.

The Fortas Chamber Music Concert series, now under the directorship of violinist Jennifer Koh, has been dabbling with the Studio K space lately. (The Catalyst Quartet makes its own Kennedy Center debut there on March 21.) The space has its merits, many of which lower stubborn barriers between chamber music and its potential audiences — it’s cozy, casual and dimly lit; it features bar service and a relaxed club-like listening environment, with sound that’s clear and close. It’s a space that feels focused on music, but stays fundamentally social.

Which made the first half of the program an experiment in itself. None of the four commissioned works in the evening’s opening half were what you’d rush to call relaxed. Many depended on pin-drop silence to make their largely acoustic points. Most drew their drama from foregrounded tensions, or ways we’ve come to signal “tension” — grinding and scraping one’s strings, loitering around in hyper-upper frequencies. Each work had a loveliness; none seemed particularly concerned with loveliness as a pursuit.

Like many of her works, Angélica Negrón’s “Pedazos intermitentes de un lugar ya fragmentado” politely excuses itself from upholding any sense of narrative obligation or formal containment in favor of creating immersive sound worlds, environments pre-steeped in their own associations and freshened by her unique compositional touches.

The “intermittent pieces of an already fragmented place” referenced in the title emerge atop a bed of field recordings from a trip taken by Negrón to visit family and friends in Puerto Rico. Little darts of flute and clarinet puncture the pulse of a modulated oscillator, with cello and violin casting long sentimental shadows. These all converge into a brightly colored tessellation of figures that taper and fade into the background noise. It’s a dazzling piece of music that seems to erase the seven minutes that claim it.

Inspired by New Orleans and it “palpable energy of both the living and the dead” composer Jessica Meyer’s “Spirits and Sinew” is made of raw, tactile, sensory stuff: The strings hang heavy like kudzu, the bass clarinet interjects like a bullfrog, the flute seems to want to light a fire. And while not delineated by movement, its moods took dramatic swings from anguish, exhaustion and joy to sublime resignation and pure frustration (i.e. a primal scream from all four members).

Violinist Rohrer took a moment to prepare the assembly in this ostensibly relaxed environment for the extreme quiet that would attend its performance of Newark-born composer and instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey’s “To Alvin Singleton.” And — as with Negrón’s piece, though happening around us — the background seemed to spring to life around a sunrise of a barely audible soundings from the stage. I could hear the refrigeration units at the back bar, the hum of the HVAC, my pen on the paper, the knuckles of my foot in my shoe. Yet, for all of its stillness, the piece’s colors were distinct, precise, carefully arranged. (It’s not shocking that Sorey recently composed a work for Houston’s contemplative Rothko Chapel.)

Dry lines of flute and clarinet were bothered only by the intrusive chirp of someone’s unmuted notifications. Otherwise, the strings unfolded with long, straight deliberate brushstrokes that grew thicker and darker. Though spare, slight and rather direct in its affinity for certain minimalists (one asthmatic passage of seesawing strings feels directly quoted from one of Morton Feldman’s sprawling string quartets). I loved its finish — a gently strummed coda with a buried melody and a slowly shimmering departure.

Nico Muhly’s “Drown” closed the first half. If I had concerns after three pieces that the timbral range of Hub New Music might result in a sort of compositional “typecasting,” Muhly’s piece scattered them. Its roiling surface was broken by little outbursts of flute and clarinet, with sudden rushes of cello and violin picking. Muhly’s music turned the stage into a bustling four-way intersection, and the Hub players rose to its challenging expressionistic palette — a virtuosic tangle here, a nostalgic sweet nothing there.

The concert’s entire second half was devoted to “Requiem for the Enslaved,” a stunning long-form work for piano, trumpet, speaker and chamber ensemble by Carlos Simon. Originally commissioned in 2020 by Georgetown (where Simon is an assistant professor of composition), and supported by the university’s Committee for Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, the cycle takes up the story of the 272 enslaved people sold by the university in 1838 to pay its debts. As a reckoning, it’s a necessary and difficult piece of work; as a meditation (modeled after a liturgical mass) it’s a necessary and enthralling piece of music.

End of carousel

Simon (on piano) and the Hub players were accompanied by spoken-word artist Marco Pavé — whose voice sat sturdily between the confident flow of an MC and the stentorian register of pastor — and trumpet player MK Zulu — whose post at the rear of the stage lent his style-shifting solos the weight of narration.

“I have a favor to ask,” Simon said to the audience at the outset, “If you feel the spirit, if you’re so moved, feel free to respond.”

This earned a small hail of amens — the audience had been waiting for an opportunity not to hold their breath and preserve the room’s quiet. But as the 10 movements of the “Requiem” moved on, a reverent quiet characterized the response. Simon has written a spiritual work in both specific and general senses — it draws from ancient hymns and contemporary gospel, classical repertoire and the jazz songbook, Gregorian chants and Sunday services. It addresses a massive congregation with an impossible intimacy.

Its “Invocation” opens with voices listing the names and ages of African people sold into enslavement, eventually focusing on the character of Isaac, an escaped enslaved person. “Runaway slave is a crime of the brave,” said Pavé in a line from the third movement, “We all found heaven,” that returns elsewhere.

A hopeful melodic motif threads through a sequence of works that showcase Simon’s compositional range, but also the depth and breadth of Black music. He does this naturally, through seamless transitions and fabulous ensemble writing that operates on a deep understanding of how these styles relate and descend from each other. He also has no bones about updating some foundations — sometimes the movements veered closer to the verse-and-hook structures of hip-hop than any traditional liturgical form. A smart dialogue between Simon on piano and Zulu’s trumpet playing bolstered this approach without overplaying it.

As weighty as Simon’s subject is with “Requiem for the Enslaved,” it felt lightened by the players’ touch, and buoyed by an atmospheric optimism in the room. When Simon returned to the stage to play a gracefully elongated take on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” there was a little more hope loaded into lines we’ve sung a thousand times before — a bit more reason to believe.

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