Review | 21st Century Consort’s ‘Singular Beauty’ takes a kaleidoscopic view

You have until March 3 to visit the Hirshhorn’s impressive eponymous exhibition of works by Jamaican American artist Simone Leigh. It’s an impressive, imposing assembly of sculptures that, as Post art critic Sebastian Smee put it, “monumentalize and make known the invisible, unwritten and historically underappreciated labor of Black women.”

Leigh’s works often feel larger than the exhibitions that show them — her 2022 Venice Biennale presentation overtook the U.S. Pavilion’s neoclassical facade with swaths of thatched roofing and grand bronze figures. (You may already have spotted her “Satellite” standing guard outside the Hirshhorn, or her “Sentinel” supervising the atrium of the National Gallery’s East Building.)

On Friday at St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill, the 21st Century Consort — resident ensemble of the Hirshhorn — supplied an additional dimension to Leigh’s work with “Singular Beauty,” a program of music attempting to emulate Leigh’s “polyphonic artistic vocabulary” as well as her experience “toggling daily between worlds — West Indian, African American, white.”

A keenly designed program by artistic director Christopher Kendall presented, as promised, a “veritable pepperpot of delectable music” that found the Consort shape-shifting between quartet, solo and ensemble configurations to perform short pieces by Jessie Montgomery, Hannah Kendall, Tania León, Shawn Okpebholo, the late Jeanne Lee, Eleanor Alberga, Jon Deak and a trio of pieces by the young Jamaican pianist/composer Mikhail Johnson.

“Of all the benefits the Hirshhorn residency provides, the stimulus for program design is the best thing,” Kendall tells me in an email. “I might not have discovered all the interesting composers of color featured in our December and January programs, for instance, if it weren’t for this inspiration.”

Like Leigh’s work, the music on Saturday’s program was big on materiality. A pair of string quartets — Montgomery’s “Voodoo Dolls” and Kendall’s “Glances / I Don’t Belong Here” opened the evening and set the tone. Montgomery’s 2009 quartet — originally composed for a dance troupe — bristled with West African rhythms (knuckle-drummed by the players against the wood of their instruments) before segueing into a thicket of serrated lines and searing glissandos.

Kendall’s quartet was equally rich in thrills — a suite of seven miniatures exploring alienation and otherness inspired by artist Ingrid Pollard’s “Pastoral Interlude” series. Each sketch, named for one of the composer’s favorite “nonurban” locales, was pulled taut by its long, tense lines — the sonic equivalent of sideways looks or parted blinds. The quartet of cellist Rachel Young, violist Daniel Foster and violinists Regino Madrid and Melissa Regni were in fine form, with tight timing and responsive dynamics that revealed deep intuition.

Pianist Lisa Emenheiser and soprano Lucy Shelton offered an entrancing reading of “Praise to the Mother of Jamaican Art,” a setting of a poem by Lorna Goodison which imagines its titular icon as a nameless enslaved African woman who “did not sign her work,” and the first of three pieces presented by Mikhail Johnson. Shelton gave a high-wire act of tremulous vibratos over Emenheiser’s spare piano — Johnson’s figures moving between melancholic nostalgia and the “blunt blade” (Goodison’s words) of angular chromaticism. It was a lovely, contemplative centerpiece to the concert’s first half, and a sharp engagement with Leigh’s own investigation of Black women’s uncredited labor.

A pairing of pieces by León and Okpebholo followed to close the half. León’s “Parajota Delate” (or, “For J. from T.”) was her 1988 birthday gift to composer Joan Tower. More so than her orchestral works, León’s chamber pieces foreground her love for texture and timbre, here most effervescently articulated by clarinetist Paul Cigan. (Cigan was a standout among the ensemble all night, especially his solo course through Johnson’s beguiling dance-inspired “Pasa Pasa” later in the evening.)

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León’s birthday card was followed by Okpebholo’s sweet and endearing love letter to his wife and two daughters, “CryptOlogiE.” Their names are coded by the composer into serial pitch sets and Morse code rhythms that percolated through Young’s cello and Matthew Ross’s flute. Like the piece itself, the performance of it is something of a family affair — the entire quintet occasionally gathering around the open piano to slap its strings and issue a harrowing (and thoroughly charming) racket.

Johnson performed his own solo piece for organ, “Si Di Staar Deh,” to launch the concert’s second half — the ivy climb of his stormy buildups leaping from stop to stop, eventually blowing open the swell shades of the church’s mighty (i.e. nearly-4,000-pipe) Flentrop organ.

Shelton took center stage for an extended solo vocal improvisation in conversation with Jeanne Lee’s “Angel Chile” — the seventh track from her 1974 album “Conspiracy” (a record Leigh also referenced in her installation for Venice). Building off Lee’s recording — in which she vocalizes the syllables of “Naima,” her daughter’s name — Shelton similarly improvised by fragmenting the sounds of “Zenobia,” i.e. Simone Leigh’s daughter. The result was a mesmerizing latticework of live and recorded voice, language pulling itself apart and together, Shelton and Lee lost in disembodied conversation. Good stuff.

Johnson’s “Pasa Pasa” and Eleanor Alberga’s rhapsodic “Jamaican Medley” followed, the latter a 1983 pastiche of Jamaican folk songs, composed for the 21st anniversary of Jamaica’s independence and powerfully performed by Emenheiser. (I’m told that Johnson is learning to play the “Medley,” and Saturday’s was as good a demonstration as one could ask for.)

The evening concluded with composer Jon Deak’s quartet, “The Jury,” a highflying setting of a 1983 poem by the Dominican-American poet Rhina Espaillat, sung with expressive gusto by Shelton. The poem chronicles the observations of four birds — an Eagle and a Sparrow (the violins of Regni and Madrid, respectively), a Pigeon (Foster’s viola) and a Vulture (Young’s cello). And the music embodies these feathered (and quite judgy) friends, with Shelton’s dramatic chops taking particular flight in her turn as the Vulture (growling a Kramer-esque “Ohhh yeahhhh!”)

It’s a light piece that paints a dark scene — a portrait of humanity that marvels at our hubris and cruelty, and wonders aloud “toward what new grief their wayward shoes would have them go.” Like Leigh’s work, it forces self-reflection at a different scale; a consideration of ourselves and each other, from above and below.

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