Xenakis on ICE draws a sell-out crowd at MOCA

Fri Jun 05, 2009 at 10:19 am

By Bryant Manning

ICE performed music of Iannis Xenakis Thursday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

As a young composer struggling mightily to get his unconventional music performed, Iannis Xenakis received the mother of all gifts from Olivier Messiaen. “I recommend this extraordinarily gifted composer,” Xenakis’s mentor wrote in a reference letter, adding that the young Greek’s music had “seduced him from the outset.” Messiaen closed by promising that a performance of his works would be “an occasion for progress.” No kidding? Even 55 years later, performances today of Xenakis’s music are still a signal occasion, and “progress” in 1954 sounds more radical than ever in 2009.

So the rare, all-Xenakis program presented by ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) Thursday night at a sold-out Museum of Contemporary Art was surely one of the season’s finest underground musical events. To ICE’s credit, the New York/Chicago-based new-music ensemble relentlessly promoted the show beforehand, showing the enviable commitment these mavens have given to one of the 20th century’s most unique and challenging composers.

That care and finesse showed in their playing, particularly in the propulsive mini-concerto Echange. Every time Joshua Rubin’s diabolical bass clarinet solos seemed to  exhaust the possibilities of his instrument, more shrieking or unearthly tones would emerge.  Guided under the ever-smooth conductor and percussionist Steve Schick, the music bustled with vitality.

Open any book on the music of Xenakis and you begin to wonder if you’re reading about the life of a deranged mathematician instead of a composer. Ominous charts, pictorial graphs, numerical tables, and formulas confront the reader more than traditional musical notation. Akanthos, with soprano Tony Arnold, mapped out a chilling soundscape of human voice and small chamber ensemble, with the two units frequently falling over each other like dominoes. The soprano’s experimental utterances were clearly the night’s crowd pleaser.

The outstanding pianist Cory Smythe performed gracefully at breakneck speeds in Palimpsest, a brightly scored work structured with dizzying clusters of constantly shifting rhythms. Whatever stale numbers Xenakis may have crunched to conceive this, the music had a fresh lyricism and potency lurking under its surface.  O-Mega, Xenakis’s final work, required ICE musicians to ascend the stairs at the MCA to surround the packed crowd. Simplistic in conception, the players whipped up a flurry of sound highlighted by the seemingly contradictory mix of plaintive violins and thunderous percussion. The result was invigorating.

The rock and art music nexus that attracts so many to Xenakis couldn’t have been more vividly illustrated than with Schick’s superb solo percussion performance in Psappha. This whirlwind of a display carried with it all the rhythmic seductions Messiaen had praised some five decades earlier.

Bryant Manning is the former classical music critic of Time Out Chicago, where he still contributes articles. He now regularly writes for the Chicago Sun-Times and frequently contributes to Entertainment Weekly, the American Record Guide and other publications. Between 2006 and 2008, he was radio host and founder of Radio DePaul’s first and only classical music station, Cyber Classical.  He is a 2007 NEA Fellow from Columbia University in New York, and authors the blog Mysteries Abysmal.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Xenakis on ICE draws a sell-out crowd at MOCA”

  1. Posted Jun 05, 2009 at 11:02 am by Jason Guthartz

    “one of the season’s finest underground musical events”

    How exactly is a well-publicized concert at one of the city’s best-known cultural institutions an “underground” event?

    Anyway, a truly outstanding concert of music too rarely performed. Support ICE!

  2. Posted Jun 05, 2009 at 11:15 am by Bruce Hodges

    Thanks for a great write-up of this concert that already has me salivating. ICE is doing the same program in New York in October.

  3. Posted Jun 05, 2009 at 11:25 am by Bryant Manning

    Because Xenakis’s music will always be an underground occasion relative to those programs of the CSO, Music of the Baroque, etc. And yes, even if it’s been promoted to death. Plus, the concert stage is literally “underground.”


    Fun concert, all the way!

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