Mostly Mozart, Hold the Mozart: the International Contemporary Ensemble and Ellie Dehn perform Fujikura, Zorn, Lucier, and Messiaen at the Park Avenue Armory

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A "chamber" for Alvin Lucier

A “chamber” for Alvin Lucier

International Contemporary Ensemble
Thursday, August 21, 2014, 7:30 pm
Park Avenue Armory

Dai Fujikura – Minina (New York premiere)
John Zorn – Baudelaires (New York premiere)
Alvin Lucier – Chamber
Olivier Messiaen (arr. Cliff Colnot) – Chants de terre et de ciel (New York premiere)

International Contemporary Ensemble

David Bowlin, Jennifer Curtis, violin
Kyle Armbrust, Maiya Papach, viola
Katinka Kleijn, cello
Dan Lippel, bass
Claire Chase, flute
Nick Masterson, oboe
Joshua Rubin, clarinet
Rebekah Heller, bassoon
Phyllis Chen, Jacob Greenberg, piano
Cory Smythe, harpsichord
Nathan Davis, Ross Karre, percussion,
Nathan Davis, hammered dulcimer

David Fulmer, conductor

Ellie Dehn, soprano

ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) has become a fixture at what might once have been considered and unlikely event, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. In recent years it has devloped into a more eclectic sort of festival, grounded in the music of Mozart as always, but including baroque and classical music played on period instruments as well as contemporary music. Within a few weeks Mostly Mozart provides a condensation of our musical interests today. It is especially welcome to get some taste of the rich contemporary music life in the City, when it inevitably thins out for the summer, as composers, many of whom teach for a living, go off to the country or an arts center to compose, perhaps with a visit to the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood or some other opportunity to congregate with colleagues and hear each other’s work.

There is no dearth of contemporary music organizations in New York, although some are less formally organized than, say, the solidly established groups in Boston, like Dinosaur Annex and the Callithumpian Consort. Of these, ICE is the most comprehensive and ambitious. Their activities include both formal concerts organized well in advance and events which seem almost to pop up out of nowhere at short notice. They also travel extensively and actually keep their original base in Chicago, straddling the two cities. They have also produced an excellent series of recordings. Their director, the flutist extraordinaire, Claire Chase, has received a well-deserved MacArthur Award for her leadership and musicianship.

It should be no surprise that there are a great many people composing what one might call “serious” music today, and almost as many approaches to the work, some directly linked to figures like Bach, Schubert, and Schumann and others drawing on the multitudinous streams of jazz, folk, and pop music which have made their appearances over the past century and longer. This a chaotic world, and one could well compare the experience to what one takes in on a walk on 42nd Street across town from the Hudson to the East River. The various programs one finds at the Tanglewood FCM from year to year can give one an idea of just how hard it is to put contemporary music into a coherent pattern. It really isn’t there. The beauty of ICE is that they embrace this chaos, and whatever intelligent selection that fits into a 90 minute or two hour program gives the audience an enlightening and satisfying perspective on the world outside. The crowd of enthusiasts is growing, and they keep on coming for further glimpses outside the cave.

On this particular evening, the cave was the Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory—a highly ornate, small room, which seemed acoustically promising. The room was packed, with even a few people standing by the walls. In terms of making sense of it all, the first two programs of ICE’s residency were each devoted to a single, very well known composer, Sofia Gubaidulina and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The concert I attended consisted of four pieces by four composers, three of which were New York premieres: Minina, Dai Fujikura’s chamber arrangement of Mina, an orchestral piece which premiered in 2012, John Zorn’s Baudelaires, and Cliff Colnot’s 2008 arrangement for chamber group of Messiaen’s song cycle for soprano and piano, Chants de terre et de ciel (1938). Alvin Lucier, something of an elder statesman among avant-garde composers, wrote Chambers in 1968, and it has proven particularly influential with younger composers in recent years. In a way, considering the way it is written for found acoustic chambers, every performance of the work is a premiere. There was also an appealing theme to the concert, not discussed in the program notes: three of the pieces were about or connected with young children. Fujikura and Messiaen celebrated the birth of their own children in their pieces, and many of the “chambers” collected for the performance of Lucier’s work were either given to ICE musicians by children or are children’s toys. ICE offer a detailed look at their “instruments” on their site: click here to see them and to hear their sounds. I’m especially fond of the lobster. Baudelaire, either as represented in his own writings or in the very different guise in which John Zorn represents him has nothing to do with children and is not for children in any case…or am I missing something? Isn’t there some children’s book..?

Overall, these were lively, even occasionally wild compositions, primarily rooted in the composer’s feelings, as clearly formed as they were. Fujikura’s characterization of his own work could apply to any of the others, even Baudelaires: “I was amazed how one’s life on earth starts so suddenly. And so the piece begins as if it starts in the middle: the soloists play together at first, as if they were one instrument. I wanted to show how rapidly the mood of the music shifts from one mood to another, just as if you were looking at the baby’s face, which can display four expressions in one second.” This effervescence of music in the moment proved an excellent platform for brilliant writing for winds, which the musicians brought off brilliantly. John Zorn’s work, anything but a tombeau de Baudelaire, was a concerto grosso for violin, cello, flutes, clarinets, bassoon, guitar, and harpsichord. It came out of the gates as a quasi-chaotic outburst, and gradually took on a more definite shape, even structure. It didn’t particularly remind me of anything in Baudelaire’s own creations, perhaps rather of the morbid passions and self-loathing of his inner life, which perhaps he often took for a stroll under a dandyesque exterior, as he pursued his reviewing and other vices. Or am I pursuing a red herring? In any case a virtuosic piece virtuosically played.

For Lucier’s Chambers, ICE musicians have been gathering hollow objects for months. These were prepared for the creation of sound within them, and field recordings were made during an ICE tour of Greenland for performance at the Armory. The musicians processed down the central aisle to the front, each holding a different object. They remained there as the music proceeded and were taken back in the the same ceremonial way at its conclusion. This was one case where the performative aspects of the work were more prominent than what one actually heard, but the music was most definitely there, behind the action.

Soprano Ellie Dehn

Soprano Ellie Dehn

Olivier Messiaen was the old master of the program, and the incomparably rich inner life expressed in his verses and music takes us to a different world—one of intensely felt sensual and paternal love illuminated by mystical faith. Cliff Colnot is a conductor and arranger based in Chicago. He heard the songs through the wall of a practice room at a music school and immediately thought of how they could be expressed in a chamber arrangement for strings, winds, and percussion. The texts and gorgeous melodic lines were not lost on the great soprano, Ellie Dehn, who joined ICE for this performance, fresh from her triumph in Weber’s Euryanthe at Bard Summerscape. Messiaen’s intimate, personal music could not be more remote from the dramatic pathos of Weber’s long-suffering heroine. It is about the happiest music one could imagine, so fulfilled and balanced that any dramatic crisis or redemption is superfluous. Dehn approached the music through sensuous beauty of tone and eloquent phrasing, and succeeded totally in bringing us within the composer’s relations with his loved ones and with God. One can only hope she keeps Chants de terre et de ciel in her repertoire.

ICE’s serendipitous programming, fluent interaction of coherent planning and spontaneity, and playing of the most excellent quality brings new music to enthusiasts and newcomers in the most vivid, pleasurable, and unpretentious way without a trace of condescension. This residency at Mostly Mozart has proven a splendid way to bring their art to New York audiences…and I throughly resent all the time they spend in places like Chicago, Manaus, and Greenland!

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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