New York New Music Ensemble with Grisey at the Vortex

United StatesUnited States  European Hits: Van Parys, Donatoni, Hurel, Grisey: New York New Music Ensemble, Merkin Concert Hall, 29.5.2012 (BH)

Annelies Van Parys: Fragrances (2008, written for NYNME)
Franco Donatoni: Ave (1987)
Philippe Hurel: Step (2006-2007, written for NYNME)
Gérard Grisey: Vortex Temporum (1996)

Jayn Rosenfeld, flute
Jean Kopperud, clarinet
Linda Quan, violin
Christopher Finckel, cello
Stephen Gosling, piano
Daniel Druckman, percussion
James Baker, conductor
Guest artist:
Lois Martin, viola

In contemporary music circles, repetition is a good thing. Many works—worthy or not—appear once and then never see the light of day again. To conclude its 35th year, the New York New Music Ensemble offered a program of four works championed by the group, including two it commissioned placed alongside two late 20th-century classics. Annelies Van Parys, from Belgium, acknowledges spectral influences in her work. Masses of microtones nestle among sighing clarinet and piccolo, and the mood vacillates between calm and convulsive, eventually reaching a furious boil before it comes to an end. This was my first encounter with Van Parys’s work, and I hope it won’t be the last. This is exactly the kind of recent score that should be held up for another hearing.

Franco Donatoni’s Ave might also be called “a fiesta of high frequencies.” Written for piccolo, glockenspiel and celeste, it was beautifully played by Jayn Rosenfeld, Daniel Druckman and Stephen Gosling, respectively. For some, it may have worn out its (brief) welcome, given the sonorities, but I found its controlled sparkle as refreshing as plunging into a fountain. More high frequencies appeared in Philippe Hurel’s Step—a sea of agitated gestures, especially a lengthy solo for bass clarinet done with striking assurance by Jean Kopperud. The piece often pairs the four players in duets, which may or may not include the pianist playing a melodica. Hurel, artistic director of France’s Ensemble Court-Circuit, gives the players a sort of back-and-forth between counterpoint and freer passages, and the NYNME players handled the contrasting sections with agility and intensity.

Now a modern classic, Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum requires the piano to be tuned a quarter tone lower than normal, which immediately creates a natural tension when its pitches brush up against the rest of the ensemble. Its form is derived from the oscillations of a sine wave (based on an arpeggio from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe), plus as Blair Johnston writes, “an attack with or without resonance” and a sound “held with or without crescendo.” If this sounds highly technical, the result is anything but; Grisey mines acoustic phenomena to create a shadowy world of shimmering clouds and violent change. Passages of transcendent stasis are interrupted by heroically aggressive outbursts on the piano (the imperturbable Mr. Gosling), in a voyage in three parts paying tribute to Gérard Zinsstag, Salvatore Sciarrino and Helmut Lachenmann. Conducted by James Baker with a calmness that was often antithetic to the volleys of sound, the result was as impressive and mind-melting as when the ensemble did it in 2004 (review here). In addition to those already mentioned, the magicians included Linda Quan (violin), Lois Martin (viola) and Christopher Finckel (cello). This is the kind of score that rewards repeated hearings, growing—perhaps oxymoronically—both friendlier and more mysterious.

Bruce Hodges