Complex But Rewarding Modern Music By AXIOM At Juilliard

-- Birtwistle, Lindberg and Grisey: AXIOM, Jeffrey Milarsky (conductor), Peter Jay Sharp Theater (The Juilliard School), New York City. 13.10.2011 (BH)

Birtwistle: Silbury Air (1977)
Lindberg: Action-Situation-Signification (1982)
Grisey: Vortex Temporum (1995)

Three modern classics – and tough ones, at that – made this a generous, intelligent and emotionally fulfilling evening at Juilliard’s Sharp Theater, with Jeffrey Milarsky giving cool-headed direction to AXIOM, one of the school’s newest performing groups.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Silbury Air – less idyllic than the title might indicate – was inspired by Silbury Hill, an ancient man-made mound in Wiltshire, England. Making dramatic use of rhythm, the score’s changing tempos and time signatures play tricks with one’s brain. The constantly percolating texture feels like an enormous monster galumphing around the countryside, yet occasionally tripping over its own bulk. But here, Milarsky encouraged a lightness verging on weightlessness – simultaneously dark and bit humorous. The sixteen AXIOM players seemed completely untroubled by the myriad complexities.

Written when he was just 24, Magnus Lindberg’s Action-Situation-Signification has all the earmarks of a young composer completely smitten with a percussionist’s giant toy box. Each of the four players (clarinet, cello, piano and percussion) also commands a table with dozens of additional percussion items, including bags of small objects to be shaken, amplified bowls of water splashed with fingertips, an empty wine bottle, crumpled paper, and at the end, the softness of sandpaper blocks quietly being scraped together. Inspired by the elements of earth, sea, rain, fire and wind, the result is more musique concrète – a succession of sounds that might owe a small debt to John Cage. This is a piece that demands to be seen, and as the four players reached (or sometimes, leaped) from object to object, one could only admire their diligence and choreography.

“They took away all the toys!” whispered the woman next to me, as the stage was reset for Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum. But part of the brilliance of Grisey’s masterwork is that its spare sextet – flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano – seems like a much larger ensemble, pressed to create an extraordinary universe of sounds by manipulating their instruments in sometimes subtle ways. Microtonal tunings in each instrument – quarter-tones and even eighth-tones – create unsettling yet gorgeous timbres. The three sections are tributes to composers Grisey admired, starting with the bubbling first movement – to Gérard Zinnstag – which uses an arpeggiated motif derived from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe (although the reference is never explicit). At the end comes a massive, violent piano cadenza (played with razor-sharp reflexes by Conor Hanick) before the second section begins, honoring Salvatore Sciarrino. Here the mood is more subdued, like a ghostly chorale, ending with whispers of strings and aspirated, pitch-less drafts on the flute and clarinet. And as in Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, written just two years later, the movements are linked with ultra-quiet connecting tissue: the strings make diaphanous, virtually inaudible bowing movements, giving a tiny rinse of color to that “in-between time.”

In the final movement, dedicated to Helmut Lachenmann, the arpeggios fire up again, but as the momentum grows, the texture begins to recede, gradually becoming calmer until the end. During the final few minutes, Milarsky quietly sat down, taking a chair next to the podium, letting the musicians come to peace by themselves with Grisey’s moving, almost noiseless intensity.

Bruce Hodges