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In the ornate concert halls and opera houses of Europe, Asia, and the Americas, well-subsidized orchestras and ensembles perform the music of famed dead white males. And in studio apartments and finished basements around the world, today’s composers write music that will, most likely, never be played in those grand venues.
But there are a few places in between the Met and the rec room, and one of them is a black-box theater across the street from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Five or six times a year, the D.C. Chapter of the American Composers Forum (ACF) stages concerts in the Mead Theater Lab, which is part of the Flashpoint arts center at 916 G St. NW.
Jonathan Morris, ACF’s D.C. chapter director, calls these concerts “self-produced.” “All we provide is the venue and the publicity,” he says. The publicity seems to have worked the night of March 23. With about 55 people in the theater, most of the seats are occupied—a turnout Morris calls “extraordinary.” Of course, the audience includes 13 performers, two composers, and one performer-composer.
The author of three of the evening’s five pieces, Carrie Rose, is a local flute instructor who’s brought some of her students with her. Three of them each perform one of Rose’s “Dedications,” short studies based on the individual player’s personality. (One musician gives another clue to her temperament: She performs wearing a mask and with a length of vine attached to her flute.)
The forum is one of seven resident organizations at Flashpoint, which provides office space to small arts groups. A national organization with headquarters in St. Paul, Minn., the ACF has chapters in New England, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In addition to the concert series, the ACF funds composer residencies with local schools and organizations.
The Flashpoint concerts are “pretty much open to everybody,” says the 33-year-old Morris, who hosts the concert in blue jeans, a T-shirt, and an unbuttoned, untucked shirt. A composer himself—“It’s a pre-existing condition,” he cracks—Morris presents mostly compositions by members of the chapter, about a third of whom live in the Baltimore area. The next program will feature the Third Rail Saxophone Quartet and includes music by Maryland composers David Froom and Theophanos Dymiotis. It will be performed at two separate venues: April 13 at Sangha in Takoma Park, Md., and May 24 at Flashpoint.
“I try to build a theme around whatever I’ve got,” says Morris of the ACF programs, and the March 23 concert is more than a little literary. It includes the first two parts of Sidney Carl Bailin’s setting of T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday for soprano and string quartet, and David Heetderks’ Ukifune, a structured improvisation for viola and tape inspired by The Tale of Genji.
To Heetderks, a D.C. native who now lives in Connecticut, the Flashpoint concert is much like ones he and his friends have arranged up north. “It’s a similar vibe,” says the composer-violist, whose performance layers Kronos Quartet– like passages over ghostly electronics.
“I also write the old-fashioned way,” Heetderks explains of his music, “but I particularly enjoy doing it myself.” Although he’s played to larger audiences, he has no complaints about the Flashpoint turnout. “If it’s an enthusiastic crowd, it’s always worth it.” —Mark Jenkins