Washington, D.C.: What’s That Racket?

Gail Wein
Gail Wein
Photo by Chad Evans Wyatt

I found out about this concert through an email directly from music director Armando Bayolo. There wasn’t any buzz on the usual listservs. No listing in the paper, no active website. So it wasn’t surprising to see that only a couple dozen people had come out to witness the inaugural concert of Great Noise Ensemble in Washington, D.C., last week at THEARC Theater in a residential southeast neighborhood.

Bayolo’s description of the inception of the group—musicians gathered by a shout-out on craigslist.com—as well as the composers-as-performers aspect of the ensemble gave the impression of a small-town, grass-roots organization. A quick glance at the concert program furthered this sense, with scarcely a familiar name on the roster of 17 players.

I arrived during a lackluster rendering of a violin sonata by Andrew Rudin, which had me questioning the professional quality of the group. But the compelling performance of the world premiere of Bayolo’s song cycle Silly Ditties instantly dashed away the student-recital feeling. Soprano Kara Morgan’s engaging stage presence and clear diction gave these appropriately titled songs just the right spin. In pigtails and a simple skirt, Morgan embraced the little-girl character outlined by the children’s lit texts. Some of the songs were a sendup—a tango, Chopin’s funeral march—and all were trite and flippant, but fun. Violinist Andrea Vercoe, cellist Caroline Kang, and pianist Bayolo provided the accompaniment, pulling off the whimsy of the piece with their mock seriousness.

Pianist Kristen Benoit’s great sense of rhythm and syncopation brought Robert Muczynski’s Third Piano Sonata to life. Her light but firm touch made for an engaging performance. Drew Hemenger’s string quartet was deceptively simple, with moments that really shone darkened by just a few intonation ouches. Works by Alec Wilder and artistic director Heather Figi rounded out the program.

Great Noise has three more performances planned this spring. Looming on the calendar are concerts on February 17 at the Sumner School in Washington, D.C., and February 24 at Shenandoah University, both featuring music by Bayolo, Blair Goins, Steve Reich, Adam Silverman, and Tom Schnauber. Later this spring, Great Noise Ensemble appears on the American Composers Forum concert series.

It’s exciting to witness the birth of this addition to the new music scene in D.C. And it will be intriguing to watch Great Noise Ensemble blossom from their humble beginnings.

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Gail Wein is associate producer for National Public Radio’s Performance Today. As a print journalist, Gail reviews concerts for The Washington Post and contributed classical music news and reviews to the now-defunct andante.com. Gail’s diverse career path includes stints as a computer programmer, actuary, and general manager of the contemporary chamber ensemble Voices of Change.