ICE opens season in audacious style

Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 1:54 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Claire Chase (center) and ICE opened their season Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Benjamin Newton.

You really have to admire ICE’s programming audacity. How many ensembles would dare to open a season with a program featuring three Chicago premieres alongside music of Boulez and Schoenberg and still play to a packed house?

The International Contemporary Ensemble launched their solidified partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art with Saturday’s opener. Newly installed as MCA ensemble in residence, ICE will perform three of their concerts at the museum every season through 2013.

Saturday’s program was a characteristically envelope-pushing lineup, titled “Roots & Return,” spotlighting two works by Boulez and Schoenberg and the more recent music by composers they inspired.

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 is one of his mid-period masterworks, written in its original version for ten winds and five strings. Crafted in a single movement of just 20 minutes, after a century the Chamber Symphony still sounds astonishingly fresh and remains a remarkable achievement. Its five intertwined sections bridge the 19th century and Schoenberg’s serial style, with discernible trace elements of Mahler and the Viennese symphonic tradition compressed and refracted as if in a distorted mirror.

It’s a testament to changing musical tastes–and the venturesome spirit of ICE’s MCA audience– that Schoenberg can receive such a thunderous ovation as this performance well deserved. This is tortuously complex music for all fifteen players, and under the fluid direction of guest conductor Jayce Ogren, the musicians rose to the challenge with outstanding playing across all sections. If the dryish acoustic took some bloom off the Romantic echoes, it sharpened the rhythmic punch and acerbic bite of the winds and brass in this high-energy performance. Kudos particularly to violinist David Bowlin, cellist Katinka Kleijn and clarinetist Steven Cohen.

John Adams once stated that he felt uncomfortable writing chamber music and his output for smaller forces remains scant. Adams’ eclectic uninhibited style seems to cry out for the large canvas and multihued palette of a large symphony orchestra.

Adams’ Chamber Symphony was inspired equally by Schoenberg’s eponymous work, as wel as the 1950s cartoons Adams’ young son watched on television. Its successor, Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), shows some of the same influences.

Cast in three movements, the score has all the kick and rock drive one might expect but it can’t be said that this is one of the composer’s stronger works. The music largely seems like a throwback to Adams’ early Minimalist style, offering clever rhythmic riffs on ascending scales and not a whole lot else. No complaints about the full-tilt performance by ICE, with Ogren bringing admirable textural clarity to the frenetic finale’s competing lines in this belated Chicago premiere.

As reflected in the cumbersome title, Boulez’s Memoriale (…explosante-fixe…Originel), like so many of his works, went through several permutations before achieving its final form. In essence, a chamber concerto for flute, Memoriale (1985) has Boulez’s top-down density and laser-like tautness, but is more suggestive and almost Impressionistic at times. It’s striking how Boulez’s late music sounds increasingly French, and Memoriale displays this with an airy lightness, luminous textures, and elliptical gradations of coloring, the flute weaving in and out of the ensemble.

Memoriale also offers greater vivacity and is more openly bravura than some of the composer’s more arid early works. Flutist Claire Chase provided a tour de force performance, surmounting the complexities and playing with expressive nuance and refinement. Ogren and the ensemble of two horns and string sextet provided advocacy on the same high level.

As Schoenberg was a decisive influence on Pierre Boulez, so too Boulez’s music has had an impact on two generations of younger composers. Dai Fujikura was represented by two works, both Chicago premieres.

Fujikura’s ICE was, unsurprisingly, written for this ensemble with the close collaboration of its players and displays a decidedly eclectic voice. Cast in a single large movement for 11 musicians, there are washes of Asian color in the wooden sounds of percussion and col legno effects for strings. It’s hard to resist the energetic main section, an engaging rhythmic joie de vivre led by guitar; the dynamic strumming by the strings sounds like competing loops of a Vivaldi mandolin concerto played at different speeds.

At 15 minutes, Fujikura’s work loses the thread in the middle and tends to meander, but ICE served as an effective showcase for Chase and colleagues. Her bass flute solo ends the work effectively, moving from spare austerity to agitation and a kind of accepting solace.

Fujikura’s brief piano work, returning, shows a retro influence with a simple Chopin-like melody speeding up and growing in complexity, and was given worthy advocacy by Cory Smythe.

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