Two 20th-Century Classics—and a Startling Newcomer

United StatesUnited States Adán, Grisey, Sciarrino: Talea Ensemble, Mary Flagler Cary Hall, DiMenna Center, New York City, 20.4.2012 (BH)

Victor Adán: TRACTUS (2011)
Gérard Grisey: Talea (1986)
Salvatore Sciarrino: Infinito Nero (1998)

Erik Carlson, violin
Elizabeth Weisser, viola
Chris Gross, cello
Jay Campbell, cello
Tara Helen O’Connor, flute
Arthur Sato, oboe
Rane Moore, clarinet
Alex Lipowski, percussion
Stephen Gosling, piano
James Baker, conductor

In a wondrous scene in Federico Fellini’s film Amarcord (1973), a crowd in a snowy Italian square watches as a peacock comes to rest next to a fountain, where the bird leisurely spreads its tail, its colors iridescent against the powdery white background. This image was running through my mind during the Talea Ensemble’s performance of Gérard Grisey’s eponymous Talea, the heart of an enormously satisfying evening at the DiMenna Center. Scarcely more than 15 minutes, this spectralist landmark has the immediacy of a dart, and near the end, a series of sonic revelations rivaling that film sequence. Talea combines rhythmic explorations with the coloristic sense of the Fauves, and the overtone scales (building blocks used by all spectral composers) are more apparent, and thus slightly easier to grasp. The Talea musicians have become well-acquainted with the score, and their mastery came through strongly in this vivid reading led by James Baker.

The opener was Victor Adán’s TRACTUS, commissioned by the ensemble, which grows more intriguing with each hearing. The printed score is gorgeous (excerpt below), with modules resembling maps of some forgotten civilization, and the instrumentation has some striking additions. A bowed foam block is one of the eye-opening additions to the percussionist’s arsenal, and the wind players have small Mexican whistles, as well as custom-designed mouth organs, each made from dog whistles, cork, string—and a trumpet mouthpiece. What emerges are hissing spurts of white noise, quiet creakings and scrapings, and other difficult-to-identify sounds. Even while watching the performers, it is hard to discern exactly how the results are being generated.

“Region 4” from Victor Adán’s TRACTUS. (Photo: Victor Adán)

In 2003 I first heard Salvatore Sciarrino’s Infinito Nero on a concert with the New Juilliard Ensemble, coincidentally with the same singer here, Bo Chang. Hearing it live remains a mysterious experience, unlike any other. Inspired by a 17th-century mystic named Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, Sciarrino creates a tightly-wound portrait of madness—which is quiet to the extreme. In his words, “She did not ‘speak’—words actually shot out of her like a machine gun and then she fell silent for a long period.” To illustrate this phenomenon, the soprano utters shrill bursts of text, all but unintelligible, while the ensemble pulses beneath her at almost imperceptible volume levels—like an throbbing heartbeat. At times the sound is so faint that one imagines one’s own blood flow being audible. With Mr. Baker guiding the expert Talea players through this tense territory, Ms. Chang was extraordinary.

Bruce Hodges