Matthias Pintscher at The Phillips Collection

Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, or the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia before it got stolen, Washington, D.C. has an important art museum well outside the zone of culture shopping on the National Mall.  It's called The Phillips Collection, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, grown from the collection of Duncan Phillips.  Distinct from the aim of larger institutions to show a cross-section of art, The Phillips Collection represents the peculiar tastes of its namesake, with stories to tell for many of his acquisitions.  Around that personal character, it also hosts public concerts in an intimate Music Room surrounded with paintings by the like of Goya and El Greco, with acoustically resonant wooden walls framing a massive stone mantle.  It's quite a place to experience chamber music; I had the pleasure of filming a performance there once, lavishing over the space as much as the music.
It's not unusual for art museums to curate music that somehow connects with visual art – nearby, Christopher Kendall's brilliant 21st Century Consort at the Smithsonian American Art Museum does this regularly – but on Thursday evening, The Phillips Collection presented an evening of chamber music from German composer Matthias Pintscher in an especially compelling fusion of visual art and music.  Also a conductor (in fact the forthcoming director of Ensemble Intercontemporain starting in 2013), Pintscher received performances here from the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), of his most intimate works.

The concert opened with on a clear day (2004), a solo piano work performed by Phyllis Chen.  Extraordinarily hushed and delicate, it set the tone for the rest of the program.  Inspired from screen prints by Agnes Martin, one of which the composer himself acquired, it represented to him a purity of simplicity and intention that he later explained anecdotally.  As he tells it, Martin simply stopped creating at a certain point in her life; and the drought lasted seven years.  Just as suddenly, she resumed; the composer found inspiration in her dedication to a higher purpose, as she left the self out of the art.  As works of minimalism, her time spent creating wasn’t the measure.  In Pintscher's piece, one note (E flat) became the straight line seen in Martin's prints, an axis of harmony.

Studies II and III for Treatise on the Veil (2005) called for violin, viola and cello.  Not really conceptual, but simply a sonic method, the score called for the instruments to have paper clips mounted onto their strings, pulling hard texture and friction from the bows.  The studies are named for Cy Twombly's layering of paint and wax crayon on canvas; when the string instruments began to play, an evocation was clear:  we could hear Cy Twombly scraping the canvas.  Setting that up with pensive development, the score grew hauntingly layered when more than one hand – two and three – added simultaneous friction.  And then, the thought of layers on a hard surface concealing things, combined with the tension of revealing them, connected well with Twombly's visual style.

In one of those rare, unexpected encounters with art that can foreshadow other revelations, I’d roamed the galleries of The Phillips Collection during the hour before the concert, and revisited its famous Rothko Room, a small space where you become surrounded with four of his idiomatic large canvases; and after that, the nearby room of Duncan Phillips' most precious collection, filled with Paul Klee.  Between Rothko and Klee, there is a richness of hidden layers by now well understood and deeply cherished.  To hear it consummated sonically in Pintscher's music, so soon afterward, was an epiphany.

The concluding work on the program was the most ambitious/complex/daring.  A duo of accordion and cello, dernier espace avec introspecteur (1994) explored "frictions and densities" (as the composer later explained), inspired from a Joseph Beuys installation of disparate objects placed upon a floor, drawing tension where the objects cannot unify.  William Schimmel's dramatic performance on the accordion lacked those familiar idioms for the instrument, sounding instead at its lower registers like the buzzy drone of an analog synthesizer.  Adding to that, knuckles rapping on the instrument's hard surface sounded like digital static.  And a piercing high held note sounded like microphone feedback.  These were, anyway, my own associations that the composer later sanctioned to be his ultimate joy of creating, when audiences take ownership.  He was not thinking about machines.

Stepping back from all this analysis, there’s something really general to write about the evening:  it must have been the quietest concert ever given, at least using traditional instruments (pianississississississimo?).  Today's flu map suggests it should have been a tough crowd (because Washingtonians are known otherwise for a personality of unrestrained coughing, then leaping to their feet for ovations after routine repertory concerts...as long as the piece ends with an ass-kicking bang).  Caroline Mousset, Director of Music Programs at The Phillips Collection, has built a loyal and invested audience with regular concerts, though, and everyone was rapt within the delicacy of the chamber.  This distinct series, called “Leading European Composers,” will continue in the same space with a special concert featuring Kaija Saariaho on February 21, 2013 – not to be missed.

Another performance from the Music Room of The Phillips Collection