ICE closes with mixed musical postcards from Paris

Sun May 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

ICE closed its season with a program Saturday night at the Museum of Contemporary Artt.

The International Contemporary Ensemble wrapped its season at the Museum of Contemporary Art Saturday night with a typically bracing program of non-French composers with a Paris connection.

The headline name was Georges Aperghis, but the most compelling music came from two younger composers of the “New Generation,” as the program put it, in a concise, well-contrasted 65 minutes.

Born in Colombia, Juan Pablo Carreño is a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire and currently resident artist at the French Academy in Rome. His Golpe en al diafragma (A blow to the diaphragm) is aptly named. Scored for large 14-player chamber ensemble, Carreño’s piece has a raw vitality and jagged, rock-like edge. The composer makes much of dynamic contrasts with shrieking high winds, violent string pizzicatos and beast-like lowing of tuba, contrabassoon and bass clarinet. Golpe en al diafragma was originally written for amplified ensemble but, as this new unplugged version demonstrated, the music packs a considerable punch without the juice. Guest conductor Ludovic Morlot led a powerful performance with striking textural clarity that brought out the gnarly, dissonant energy.

The clear audience favorite was Patricia Alessandrini’s Omaggio a Berio, an ICE commission heard in its world premiere. Scored for six players (flute, clarinet, viola, cello, percussion and piano), Omaggio is an intimate theatrical piece as much as a musical work. In the opening bars pianist Cory Smythe and flutist Claire Chase create a barely audible rustling sound by playing the inside of the prepared piano, set against hushed notes by the cellist on the bridge of his instrument. Chase sings quietly into her flute and soon the violist stands up and walks over to join the other two at the piano, as does the clarinetist in a collaborative coaxing of refined, crystalline hues with a strange, otherworldly expression. Alessandrini studied at IRCAM and her homage to Berio is enigmatic and haunting, showing a distinctive and imaginative compositional voice.

Like his compatriot Iannis Xenakis, Georges Aperghis, 66, was born in Greece and has long been resident in France. The main work of the evening was Aperghis’s Shot in the Dark, which was commissioned by ICE and given its world premiere by the ensemble in New York two days previously.

Written for soprano and large chamber ensemble, Shot in the Dark represents, says the composer, “an impossible portrait of a fluctuating woman . . . moving from one state of consciousness to the other,” as if searching in the dark. The soloist is called upon to emit a series of indecipherable sounds, whispers, imprecations, and pronouncements elaborated on by the large chamber orchestra in a kind of free-form atonal opera scena.

Yet Shot in the Dark proved a decided misfire. The shade of Berio looms larger here than in Alessandrini’s homage with the virtuosic sprechstimme a clear descendant of the works Berio crafted for Cathy Berberian, without any of the Italian composer’s joyous abandon or individuality. So too, the noisy and hectic writing for the chamber ensemble pays a strong debt to the unruly energy of Xenakis without Aperghis evidencing a distinctive voice of his own.

Tony Arnold delivered a tour de force performance worthy of Berberian with crisp enunciation and a dizzying emotive range in the tortuously demanding soprano role. Morlot drew equally fiery and committed playing from the ICE ensemble.

In Aperghis’s Signaux (1978) pairs of violins and violas shadow each other’s lines. The four string players (violinists Erik Carlson and David Bowlin and violists Maiya Papach and Wendy Richman) played with impressive concentration and dynamic nuance but this early Aperghis work is even less impressive than Shot in the Dark, with a formless, meandering style, and an arid astringency that was already dated by the 1970s.

The evening began with an Aperghis “bonus” world premiere, The Iliad and the Odyssey, for violin and clarinet, a brief epigrammatic micro-miniature lasting barely two minutes. Would that the composer’s humor, as applied to the epic title, was more evident in his music.

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