ICE downsizes with intriguing music for oboe and piano, past and present

Mon Jan 13, 2014 at 12:03 pm

By Michael Cameron

ICE oboist James Austin Smith performed with pianist Cory Smythe Sunday afternoon at Preston Bradley Hall.

It was the International Contemporary Ensemble that received top billing Sunday at Preston Bradley Hall Sunday afternoon, but only a small subset of the esteemed band was on hand to present an intriguing program of solos and duos. In his opening remarks, oboist James Austin Smith drew parallels between the romanticism of Robert and Clara Schumann and music of recent decades. The relative brevity of the individual works put the spotlight on contrasts more than common threads.

The acoustics of the hall are notoriously problematic, its marble and tile surfaces more a treat for the eye than the ear. Amplification helped to a degree, but balances between oboe and piano were hit or miss, through no fault of the musicians themselves.

Smith and pianist Cory Smythe opened the program with a sensitive and nuanced reading of Clara Schumann’s Romances for Oboe and Piano. Their emphasis was firmly centered on the melodic line, with the duo particularly effective in the more intimate utterances. These allowed plenty of room for deviation, such as the surging phrases in the middle of the first movement or the playful dialogue of the second.

The shift to the atonal world of Ernst Krenek’s Four Pieces for oboe and piano from 1966 was striking, despite a concerted effort by the duo to tease out commonalities. In place of the long lines were shorter, sometimes even pointillistic phrases, though Smith did find the odd gesture that gained from lyrical insistence. More striking were the expert declamations of angular, disjunct lines, as well as the occasional extended technique such as oboe multiphonics and percussive effects of the body of the piano.

In the kind of bracing stylistic whiplash that characterized the entire program, Smythe turned back to the mid-19th century for an exquisitely shaped reading of Robert Schumann’s Arabesque, op. 18. While there are other piano works of Schumann that rely more on surprise and misdirection than this one, the pianist teased out a few of the startling harmonic twists, emphasizing the impulsiveness that is one of the composer’s defining attributes.

Smith and Smythe brought out similar sturm und drang in the third movement of Schumann’s Three Romances, after their breezy, pastoral account of the second. In an arrangement of two movements of Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style, the duo made the character pieces sound as natural and unforced as the original cello version.

ICE percussionist Ross Karre joined Smith for the most recent item on the program, Du Yun’s Piece for Oboe and Tam from 2011. The work was most arresting in the variety of sounds the composer coaxed from a single gong, with a variety of implements employed around various locations on the shiny metal surfaces. A shimmering hum of extended vibrations served as an aural background, resonating in the various nooks and crannies of the hall.

Multiphonics were again used to keen effect in Elliott Carter’s “Inner Song” from Trilogy for solo oboe. Smith easily vanquished the considerable technical demands, finding an urgent theatrical thread within the insistent jagged outbursts.

Contrasts within contemporary music can be as startling as those between centuries. Whereas the Carter was careful to avoid obvious repetitions of pitch and pulse, Unsuk Chin’s Piano Study V (Toccata) reveled in motoric motion and single pitch iterations. Cory Smythe’s performance was keenly attentive to detail while brimming with dramatic sweep.

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