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Ensemble Intercontemporain

An evening of 20th-century music

By Fred Choi

Conducted by David Robertson

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel; Igor Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale Suite; Iannis Xenakis’ Thallein; Gyorgy

Ligeti’s Piano Concerto.

Kresge Auditorium

April 23, 1999

There is only one characteristic that is shared by the wide range of composers of twentieth-century music: their tangible uniqueness. A quick look at a random sampling of composers corroborates this fact. Stravinsky’s neo-classicism bears no resemblance to Symanowski’s exoticism; Part’s serene religious music has nothing to do with Schoenberg’s serialism; and all are different from Cage’s avant-garde style and Glass’ minimalism. The concert by the Ensemble Intercontemporain at MIT last Friday was yet another testament to the extensive creativity of the composers of this century. Limiting itself to composers born during the first quarter of the century, the program still managed to be striking in its great variety of musical styles. Much of the credit goes to the Music Director David Robertson, who worked together with the Ensemble to skillfully highlight the differences between the works. In addition to this, the Ensemble played with such assurance that the concert, which consisted of music that is a challenge to listen to, was thoroughly enjoyable and oftentimes enlightening.

The first work on the program, Kreuzspeil (Cross Play), was much-anticipated by those in the audience who were familiar with the composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen is most known for his electronic compositions that, unlike popular electronic works, challenges the definition of music. These compositions consist of electronic pitches and sometimes snatches of vocal lines that seem to be combined at random. In contrast, the piece performed by the Ensemble was scored for oboe, bass clarinet, piano, and three percussionists, and provided a welcome surprise. However, it preserved the characteristic rhythmic and tonal complexity of his electronic works and the Ensemble, beautifully aided by Mr. Robertson’s clear conducting, mastered their task beautifully. The notes in the beginning although seemingly random, were perfectly timed and created a sparsely pointillistic landscape. The second section hinted at a discernibly melody, which the Ensemble, led by the oboe, played with much care. The third section of the piece displayed yet again the fluidity with which the Ensemble played, but it also made clear the obvious effort with which the group prepared the piece.

The second work, Stravinsky’s familiar Suite from L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), served as a nice contrast to the intensity of the first piece. Despite a few miscalculations in intonation and rhythm, the Ensemble left the audience feeling each section was far too short. The work allowed individual instruments to shine, most obviously the violin, with its fiendish parts pleasantly reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. The parts were played with flair and character, as well as impressive bow control and beautifully resonant double stops. Along with the violin, the clarinet and trumpet also provided memorable solos. In the third movement, “Music for the Second Scene,” the clarinet was absolutely gorgeous, and in the fourth movement the trumpet’s fireworks were simply awe-inspiring.

The Ensemble’s performance of the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’s Thallein introduced the audience to a composer who deserves wider recognition. Although the concert notes compared the music to “the slow growing of plants ... and the wind or seismic quakes,” the former analogy seems farfetched, as the work leans towards “seismic quakes”of titanic proportions. Mr. Robertson almost literally jumped into the piece after the Intermission, forcing the Ensemble to catch his energy and plunge themselves headlong into the chaotic and uncontrollable force of the work. The piece was filled with immense frustration, moans, and startling, Sweeney Todd-like shrieks, performed by the barely restrained Ensemble with their machine-like string parts, recurring glissandi (even in the wind parts), chromatic passages and blocks of tones imitating a pipe organ. The Ensemble made this “organized chaos” sound like passionless, earth-shattering music rather than noise, thereby capturing the “music” of tidal waves and tornadoes. And once again Mr. Robertson kept the group under tight control, contributing a fluid, almost formless, conducting style appropriate to the piece. Although the horn, trumpet, and piano performances were all noteworthy, the piercing piccolo was technical virtuosity incarnate, and when combined with superb artistry, it was a true joy to witness.

The Ensemble lost a bit of momentum during the fourth and final work of the program, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Concerto for Piano. Their intentions were clear and there were numerous memorable moments, such as the piano’s rhythmically minimalist opening section, or the playful second theme with the flute and bass duet sounding like the cry of a lone bird in a wilderness. The emotionally moving, shrieking, wind section, effectively accompanied by a police whistle, made for a memorable moment as well. There were, however, more than a few discontinuities of fluidity between movements, and also within the movements themselves. And even though soloist Florent Boffard executed all of his parts perfectly, there were several times when the orchestra and piano needed to be better balanced.

It was gratifying that the attendance at the concert was so high. The Ensemble Intercontemporain, founded by the venerable Pierre Boulez, is of such high caliber that every work they played was enjoyable to hear, even for those who have had little previous exposure to twentieth-century music. I doubt that the masses would have come were the concert not for free, but until the day comes when contemporary composers get the recognition that is their due, we can only be appreciative that concerts like these continue to be presented here at MIT.