The Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society is to be applauded for crafting an evening in which Julius Eastman (the celebrated – if only recently – gay, black composer who died in obscurity in 1990 at the age of 49) wasn’t just on the program but was the oldest composer on the program. The presenting organization is to be commended for Eastman not being the only composer of color represented, and for not curating an all-male evening. And they might reasonably be questioned for concocting a sort of space station waiting room vibe to fill the gaps between the pieces at this concert.

Alexi Kenney, Gilles Vonsattel and Darrett Adkins
© Cherylynn Tsushima

Jeffrey Mumford’s cello solo let us breathe opened the evening with broad strokes of the strings separated by pronounced, isolated stabs held firm but with heavy vibrato. The brief and muscular piece was a lockdown commission by the Cincinnati Symphony, the title referencing the killing of George Floyd by police, and was played with an appropriate bravado by Darrett Adkins.

It was the first of two Mumford solos Adkins would play. The longer one (by a factor of 10), amid fleeting pockets of billowing radiance from 1990, was akin to the first, just as exacting in its two-voices-one-mind through line, but adding some strongly enunciated ostinatos. It was a welcome opportunity to hear more of the Adkins attack.

Separating those pieces was a trio from 2020 by the New Zealand composer Salina Fisher, and separating each of those works, and the two that followed, were brief, amplified annotations that were odd to the point of distraction. Fisher's Kintsugi for piano, violin and cello was, in the composer's words, a “meditation on beauty in a broken state”. The composer drew a parallel to Japanese ceramics and a process (which gave the piece its name) of glazing a pot to highlight, rather than hide, its imperfections. Her music was very light, floating with, indeed, pronounced cracks in its surface, successful in that the beauty of the rather nebulous work (contrasting moods but no real motifs) persevered through the flashes of sharp piano trills and abrasive, scraped strings. The piece slowly smoothed out, not quite into anything thematic but in the way that the glaze on a pot is consistent in color and style, cracks and all, even without repeating design elements.

Darrett Adkins
© Cherylynn Tsushima

Fisher’s spoken description was played through the PA before the piece, along with a narrative overview. The pauses between each of the pieces as the stage was reset were bathed in blue light, backing music and prerecorded program notes. The read-aloud program notes surely wouldn't work in a larger room (Rose Studio seats about 100) but more to the point, it robbed audience members of the chance to peruse the program themselves, to compare notes and to whisper about who was out of tune. The brief interims are audience time, a break from attention, and needn’t be filled with more programming.

A Clarence Barlow piece, titled (and composed in) 1981, mirrored the instrumentation of Fisher's and claimed inspiration in Clementi and Ravel. Indeed, it was more formalist, although closer to the rigors of the Second Viennese School than the rhapsodic Ravel. It marched along, confident yet out of step, into more of a mechanistic whimsy than may have been intended, supplanted by the rather ferocious earnestness of the musicians.

During the final prerecorded indoctrination, two grand pianos were nestled together on the small stage in preparation for the oldest and what would prove to be the only truly profound work on the program (has profundity fallen from fashion?). Eastman's 1979 Gay Guerilla, scored for four unspecified instruments but heard here in an arrangement for two pianos (or four hands), began elegantly and quickly filled in its spaces, actualizing the implied harmonies in its repeated phrases, then following the new implications of the revised agenda. Eastman's inclines are gradual and precise and when they drop off, it’s never back to zero; it’s exciting music, forever looking upward. That Gilles Vonsattel, the evening's primary pianist, and Terrence Wilson remained so perfectly in sync was an achievement in itself. That they did so with such vivid expressiveness, even through the arpeggiated smears of the final ascent, was a marvel and a justice to Eastman's memory in a powerful, if a bit odd, evening.