Strings excel in IRIS performance in Germantown

It's enough for some orchestras to simply perform familiar and comforting tunes, taking no chances and sending audiences home with fading satisfaction.

Not so the IRIS Orchestra, which aims to cultivate a sense of excitement not only in fine performances but in bold programming. Maestro Michael Stern pulled it together again Saturday night in a concert that premiered a work by versatile rising composer Anna Clyne, showed the virtuosity of two of the world's top violinists and showcased a robust string section.

The Clyne composition — "Prince of Clouds" — was co-commissioned by IRIS and is part of a remarkable program initiated by the evening's guest performers, Jaime Laredo and Jennifer Koh.

The project titled Two x Four features the two violinists performing four double violin pieces. Two of the works were performed Saturday at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre — Clyne's "Prince of Clouds" and Bach's well-loved Double Concerto for Two Violins. (The other works are Philip Glass's "Echorus" and a new piece by David Ludwig first performed in May).

It was electrifying, from concept to performance. Laredo and Koh, who once were teacher and student at the Curtis Institute of Music, are now colleagues who often appear together. The Two x Four project came about from this evolving relationship and celebrates influences, of teacher to student, of composer to composer and of the kinship of creativity.

The Bach Double serves as the foundation, a glorious work with three energetic and gorgeous movements. Saturday night saw the chemistry between Laredo and Koh, backed by the IRIS strings, fulfill Bach's intentions with a crystalline performance.

The Clyne premiere followed, a piece that the composer, who was present, said was inspired by musical lineage, a kind of family tree that connects teacher to student and generations of composers. Clyne's work is highly textured and deliciously fresh and expressive. Layers and cascades of melody deftly mix with dissonances, sudden silences and furious bursts of sound. While there are influences from Bach to a bit of Babbitt, her work is original and thoroughly 21st Century, reflecting the anxiety, thrills and passions of contemporary life. "Prince of Clouds" is a fascinating and powerful piece.

The concert opened with Elgar's Serenade for Strings in E minor, beautifully performed by IRIS.

Concluding the evening was the string orchestra version of Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat major with Laredo and Koh joining in. IRIS performed it with gusto, and if the violins had slight pitch issues, the lower strings were strong and the violas splendid.

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