The Talea Ensemble at Merkin Concert Hall

Ziporyn, Fulmer, Lerdahl, Cassidy Hoffman, Steiger: Scott Voyles (guest conductor), Talea Ensemble, Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, 24.3.2011 (BH)

Evan Ziporyn : Speak, At-Man! (2006)
David Fulmer
: String Quartet No. 4 (2010)
Fred Lerdahl
: Oboe Quartet (2002)
Aaron Cassidy
: the green is either (2003, U.S. premiere)
Elizabeth Hoffman
: assemblage (2011, World premiere)
Rand Steiger
: A Menacing Plume (2011, World premiere)

Talea Ensemble
Tara Helen O’Connor, flute
James Austin Smith, oboe
Rane Moore, clarinet
Erik Carlson, violin
David Fulmer, violin
Elizabeth Weisser, viola
Chris Gross, cello
John Popham, cello
Steven Beck, piano
Matthew Gold, percussion
Alex Lipowski, percussion
Miller Puckette, electronics
Scott Voyles, guest conductor

In a bracing program from the first decade of the 21st century, the adventurous Talea Ensemble surveyed some of the most disciplined writing from six composers, most of whom were on the premises at Merkin Concert Hall to enjoy the spirited audience reaction. The evening opened with Speak, At-Man! By Evan Ziporyn, who uses “ghost” techniques to evoke the Hindu concept of “at-man,” referring to “individual soul and universal consciousness.” While the flutist (Tara Helen O’Connor) explores harmonics, the pianist (Steven Beck) must play with one hand inside the piano, damping some of its strings.

Aaron Cassidy’s the green is either was perhaps the most demanding, with a small ensemble pressed to the limit. The composer describes the work as “three interconnected, simultaneous trios for seven players,” but that only begins to hint at the difficulties they face. As far as I can discern from the notes, Cassidy is concerned with dissecting music into component parts of pitch, timbre and duration, and further “destabilization” by notating other aspects of instrumental technique into each musician’s part, or, to put it another way (perhaps), to separate a musical note from both its meaning and context. The aural result of this somewhat abstract exercise was a restless, over-stimulated furor of tiny gestures.

But David Fulmer’s spare, rigorous String Quartet No. 4 also has its hazard warnings. Using harmonics, accented bursts of sound, pizzicatos and a galaxy of other contemporary techniques, he applies these to a quartertone octave (i.e., 24 distinct notes), to fascinating effect. Fulmer, a superb violinist who also played in the ensemble, wrote himself more than a few virtuosic passages with a Paganini-like energy, along with Erik Carlson (violin), Elizabeth Weisser (viola) and Chris Gross (cello). Oboist James Austin Smith swapped places with Mr. Fulmer for Fred Lerdahl’s Oboe Quartet, which felt like a cell dividing. An opening motif spawned a shower of others, leading to a complex pizzicato section with Smith’s mellifluous tone often emerging from the blend to hover above. Lerdahl’s lovely gestures-a series of “expanding variations”—were easy to listen to.

Electronics figured in the final two works, both premieres. Elizabeth Hoffman’s assemblage—for clarinet, piano and percussion—uses dense textures, often on the metallic side, processed with extreme subtlety in real time. Rane Moore, Mr. Beck and Matthew Gold handled the delicate mix with the care of builders uncrating glass. To close the program Rand Steiger offered an explicitly programmatic work, A Menacing Plume, referring to the enormous patch of underwater oil created in the wake of the BP disaster last year in the Gulf of Mexico. Dramatic, restless clangs give way to a slow-moving river of sound, until a massive electronic cloud grows in intensity, blotting out everything else, and leaving spare bowed percussion and high strings in its wake. Miller Puckette supervised the chillingly effective electronic portion, and cellist John Popham and percussionist Alex Lipowski joined the large ensemble, all led by conductor Scott Voyles with solemnity appropriate to the music’s sad inspiration.

Bruce Hodges