Mostly Mozart (9): Composers from Mozart to now peerlessly played by ICE

United StatesUnited States  Mostly Mozart, International Contemporary Ensemble: Peter Serkin (piano), Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Matthias Pintscher (conductor), Dennis James (glass armonica), Alice Tully Hall / Kaplan Penthouse, New York City, 8-11.8.2011 (BH)

August 8, 7:30 p.m.


Study for pianola (1917)
Fanfare for a New Theatre (1964)
Lied ohne Name (1916-18)
Epitaphium (1959)
Three Pieces for string quartet (1914)
Ragtime (1917-18)|
Concertino (c. 1920, rev. 1952)
Concerto in E-flat major (“Dumbarton Oaks”) (1937-38)
Eight Instrumental Miniatures (1962)
Concerto for Piano and Winds (1923-24)

August 11, 7:30 p.m.

Mozart (arr. Sciarrino): Adagio, K. 356 (1791/1994, U.S. premiere)
Pintscher: Occultation (2010)
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1906)
Mozart: Serenade for winds in B-flat major, K. 361 (“Gran Partita”) (1783-84)

August 11, 10:30 p.m.

Jonathan Harvey: Serenade in homage to Mozart (1991, New York premiere)
John Zorn: Christabel (1972)
Steve Lehman: Lenwood & Other Saints Who Roam the Earth (2011, world premiere)
Phyllis Chen: Chimers (2011, world premiere)
Mozart: Adagio and Rondo in C minor, K. 617 (1791)

If the premise “everything old is new again” is true, does its converse apply to everything new? In a shrewdly programmed, often startling series of concerts at this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival, the International Contemporary Ensemble showed that works from different eras can coexist, mingle and talk to each other, with intelligence and wit.

Stravinsky’s output isn’t so far removed from the festival’s eponymous composer; certainly the “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto has enough Mozartean fizz to slake the thirst of any fan of Die Zauberflöte  –  most assuredly as served up here with the expert guidance of Pablo Heras-Casado, who drew an elegant, fleet reading, his body language vying with the score for grace. Earlier in the day, on Twitter, the young conductor mentioned how much he was enjoying working with the ensemble, and the feeling looked completely mutual.

Smack in the middle of the first of ICE’s four concerts, the light-fingered performance sent the packed Alice Tully Hall audience into intermission on a giddy note. But let’s rewind to the program’s opening. Lights directed us to the balcony, where trumpeters Gareth Flowers and Peter Evans followed with a crisp Fanfare for a New Theatre, and then from its opposite side, Rebekah Heller and Adrian Morejon (bassoons) burbled the mysterious Lied ohne Name, which Whit Bernard described in his notes as “40 seconds of lumbering, utterly obtuse awkwardness.

Lights returned to the left side of the stage for Epitaphium, for flute, clarinet and harp, entertainingly realized by Claire Chase, Josh Rubin and Bridget Kibbey, respectively. And with the briefest of breaks, four players – David Bowlin, Erik Carlson, Maya Papach and Katinka Kleijn – gave taut force to Three Pieces for string quartet. The net effect was to show Stravinsky’s dazzling expertise in tiny forms, a sort of doll-sized Pictures at an Exhibition. Also before intermission came a spirited reading of Ragtime, with guest David Shively sporting a tangy new cimbalom, and a rare performance of the Concertino, with adroit violin work by Mr. Bowlin.

The second half began with another late Stravinsky treasure from the 1960s, Eight Instrumental Miniatures, but ICE saved the climax for the end: piano wizard Peter Serkin as soloist in the Concerto for piano and winds. Serkin’s volatile-yet-accurate artistry was physically on view, judging from the sweat flying everywhere (on a hot New York night). I doubt there is a pianist alive who could have surpassed his focus and control. But the piece isn’t a solo, and he was backed by some of the finest wind playing I’ve heard all year.

Two days later the ensemble returned to Tully with its crack wind crew actually playing some real-live Mozart, his epic “Gran Partita.” Smartly led by composer Matthias Pintscher, the musicians decisively showed that their deep commitment to the scores of today has not erased their ability to find profound meaning in those of two centuries ago. They really can play anything. The loud, well-deserved ovation capped a concert that began with more Mozart, his Adagio, K. 356 as filtered through Salvatore Sciarrino, who in 1994 gave it this pristine, lucid arrangement. With the players standing, all eyes were on Nathan Davis, neatly balancing a glass of water in one hand. As each phrase ended, Davis moistened his finger and with impeccable timing, added the final note with a small rub on the rim of the glass. Some trying to keep a straight face were probably thwarted.

Pintscher returned to lead Occultation, the third movement of his full-scale work called Sonic Eclipse. Although there are moments of crashing violence, there are plenty of moments just this side of silence. Scored for horn, trumpet (often muted) and ensemble, it shows the composer deploying his typically vivid, slightly unorthodox paintbox of colors, helped by musicians who are fearless in giving him exactly the timbres he wants. Mr. Flowers and David Byrd-Marrow were the superb soloists. To conclude the first half, Pintscher led the ensemble in a brisk reading of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 – how is it possible that this startling piece is now over 100 years old? – which seemed to completely delight the eager Tully crowd.

The last concert in the Kaplan Penthouse might have been the most magical. (Unfortunately I had to miss the first of these two nocturnal delights.) Ms. Chase, ICE’s exuberant flutist and Executive Director, gave a humorous welcome before the group opened with Jonathan Harvey’s fascinating Serenade in homage to Mozart, with a Die Zauberflöte piccolo motif given fanciful life by Mr. Lamb. To follow, an early work by John Zorn, Christabel, used slow, frozen blocks of sound interrupted by wildly animated bursts – and a ghostly appearance by a viola (Wendy Richman, offstage) at the very end.

Two world premieres showed ICE at its best, exploring highly original sound worlds with the kind of calm precision any composer would covet. Steve Lehman’s Lenwood & Other Saints Who Roam the Earth is a magical tribute to four jazz legends: Ed Blackwell, Betty Carter, Gary Thomas and Henry Threadgill. Scored for two flutes, the four sections range from a peppery sparkle (for Carter) to chunky, sputtering breaths (for Threadgill). Phyllis Chen’s delicate Chimers was also inspired by Mozart’s “Flute” – specifically, by Papageno’s magic chimes – and used an unusual mix of toy piano, toy instruments, flute, violin and clarinet (and a laptop). This is one instance in which camera close-ups would have been ideal, to observe exactly how Chen was creating what ultimately became a hugely tantalizing palette. Wait, was that electric guitar fuzz? Did I hear temple bells? What was clarinetist Josh Rubin doing with tuning forks near the toy piano?

The evening ended – most appropriately – with Mozart’s final chamber work, the Adagio and Rondo in C minor, for flute, oboe, viola and cello, and an unusual guest star, a glass armonica played by Dennis James. Developed by Benjamin Franklin after seeing tuned wine glasses in use, the instrument here is about the size of a baby’s bassinet, holding water and a series of rotating glass discs, played (as with the glass in the Sciarrino earlier in the evening) with a moistened finger. The number of the world’s glass armonica scholars is probably in the single digits, making Mr. James’s appearance all the more welcome, and the instrument’s sound has an odd carnival charm – a sort of “aqua music box” appeal that wouldn’t be out of place in a science fiction film. Here, its inclusion mostly confirmed that one of the country’s busiest contemporary music groups is also one of the keenest thinking as well.

Bruce Hodges