ICE opens with a bracing blast from the modernist past

October 06, 2011

The International Contemporary Ensemble opened its season Wednesday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art with a bracing lineup of leading 20th-century composers, which played to a packed and mostly young house.

Titled “Chance Encounters,” the program was inspired by two important meetings. John Cage and Morton Feldman serendipitously bumped into each other at a performance of Webern’s Symphony in New York and became close friends and colleagues. And near the end of his life, Iannis Xenakis met Feldman, which in turn had a major impact on the young Greek composer.

The ICE program led off with Feldman’s Routine Investigations for six players. The 1976 work is less austere than many Feldman works of the period yet maintains a tense, unsettled quality, with its elliptical notes, tolling of piano chords, and fitfully flowing astringencies.

ICE arranged four brief John Cage number pieces, here cast in the composer’s densest musical cacophony. Four speakers read various nonlinear texts (in English, German and Spanish) simultaneously while the instrumental ensemble (piano, string trio and two percussionists) contribute isolated notes and fragments. At eight minutes, the confection felt a bit overextended, but guest conductor Steven Schick elicited strikingly precise and deftly balanced clarity from the riotous welter of colliding vocal and instrumental lines.

Pauline Oliveros’s Double X seems to channel Feldman’s brand of lucid concentration and glacial progress more than Cage’s anarchic style. The eight musicians were arrayed on either side of the MCA theater’s steep stairs and their tautly focused playing brought out the pointillist colors, antiphonal dialogues and strangely consolatory silences.

Anton Webern’s Concerto for 9 Instruments had to stand in for his Symphony due to lack of orchestral resources. The oldest work on the program (1934), Webern’s Concerto sounded  fresher than either Cage work with its singular brand of atomistic compression, fractured shards of Late Romanticism flickering by as if in a distorted mirror. Rarely will one hear Webern’s music emerge with this kind of youthful spirit and joyous swagger, performed with great enthusiasm by the ICE ensemble under Schick’s vital direction.

The second half ratcheted up the envelope-pushing element with Cage’s Imaginary Landscape #4, one of his most infamous works. Scored for 24 players and 12 radios, this five-minute 1951 exercise in barely controlled sonic chaos, calls for the two-dozen “players” to stand in pairs, one doing the tuning and the other adjusting the volume up and down as directed.

Like many such Cage works, Imaginary Landscape #4 is more gimmicky than anything else. Still it provides a kind of aural sampler of contemporary American culture with its epigrammatic snatches of talk radio, Spanish music, rock and commercials. Steven Schick conducted with all the gravity and scrupulous balancing he might give to Verklarte Nacht.

The evening closed with decidedly tougher meat. Xenakis’s Thallein was written in 1984  for the London Sinfonietta. At 18 minutes, Thallein was the longest work on Wednesday’s program, and, for some in attendance, it seemed the most difficult to assimilate.

Scored for large ensemble, Thallein (“budding”) opens with a crashing chord and proceeds for most of its duration in a rhythmically aggressive style with strident high winds and pounding percussion. The screaming high frequencies had some audience members covering their ears but in its jagged and uncompromising style Xenakis’s work made an apt coda to a terrifically compelling evening. As was the case all night, Steven Schick’s clarifying, intensely focused conducting was exemplary in every respect.

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