Mostly Mozart (12): Imagination and Expert Playing Light Up a Venerable Festival

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart (12): International Contemporary Ensemble, Clark Studio, Lincoln Center, New York City. 15-19-20.8.2013 (BH)

August 15
Beethoven (arr. Schimmel): Overture to Egmont for solo accordion (1809-10/2012, world premiere)
Matthias Pintscher: dernier espace avec introspecteur (1994)
Matthias Pintscher: Study II for Treatise on the Veil (2005)
Beethoven: String Trio in G major (1797)

August 19
Nathan Davis: Ghostlight (2013, world premiere)
Maria Stankova: rapana (2013)
Maria Stankova: afaint afar away over there what (2013)
Nathan Davis: On the Nature of Thingness (2011)

August 20
Pauline Oliveros:
Thirteen Changes: For Malcolm Goldstein (1986)
Double X (1981)
Concerto for Bass Drum and Ensemble, In Memory of Mary Montgomery Brown (1942-2012) (2013, world premiere)

Near the end of this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival, where the International Contemporary Ensemble has been in residence for three years, the group marked the eightieth birthday of composer Pauline Oliveros, and in realizing her scores created sounds I had never heard before—no easy task in a city packed with fertile composers and new music ensembles. At one point Gareth Flowers confounded me when an eerie whistling emerged from his trumpet. Rebekah Heller turned her bassoon into a basilisk, honking loudly as if awakened from a centuries-old sleep. And Claire Chase (who also serves as ICE’s Executive Director) made some liquid “plopping” that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside her flute, as if she were testing water droplets in an echo chamber. It’s entirely possible that the players have used these techniques before, but in Oliveros’s hands—specifically, Thirteen Changes: For Malcolm Goldstein (1986)—the results had the dewy resonance of birth.

Oliveros, who has championed a concept she dubs “deep listening,” encourages listeners to get more out of their ears than they ever thought possible. (A favorite quote: “We come into the world making sound, and continue to do so until someone tells us not to.”) At one point she led the audience in a brief exercise, inviting everyone to recall a childhood noise and then recreate it, interacting with others in the room; the result was a remarkably varied sonic thicket, with details peeping through like little exclamation points.

Similarly, the nineteen lines of the score to PIANO PIANO (e.g., “Each Tone a Key” or “Black Black”), intently handled by pianist Cory Smythe, produced captivating Webern-like islands. And in the night’s earliest work, Double X (1981), eight players faced each other in two teams, with Oliveros’s instructions creating sustained volleys being gently tossed back and forth.

“Finally, one for bass drum!” was the sentiment I heard over and over after the world premiere of Concerto for Bass Drum and Ensemble, In Memory of Mary Montgomery Brown (1942-2012). The three movements—“Birds,” “Animals” and “Humans”—ask the musicians to evoke those sounds, while the soloist interacts. (The three texts were read with touching vulnerability by Winsome Brown, the dedicatee’s daughter.) Steven Schick, rock-star percussionist who is worth hearing under any circumstances, had his share of the evening’s startling moments, including one sequence with three ball-head drumsticks rolling on the instrument’s surface as he tilted it back and forth.

This concert’s inventiveness might be a metaphor for the group’s festival appearance as a whole—at least, as displayed in the other two concerts I caught, which were similarly invigorating. As the centerpiece of On the Nature of Thingness, a strongly conceived, four-movement cycle, percussionist Nathan Davis made adroit use of Hugo Ball’s DADA Manifesto, with soprano Tony Arnold merrily chattering away as the ten musicians deployed mouth harps—a surrealist hoedown. Davis also contributed Ghostlight, a fine new solo piano journey written for Jacob Greenberg, who produced tingling sonorities from the instrument’s strings, doctored with small objects inside.

On the same program, Arnold and Chase showed concentration facing each other for Maria Stankova’s rapana, written as a lullaby, with parts almost at the edge of inaudibility. And similarly, the ensemble showed that it can play with an educated reticence in afaint afar away over there what (2013), its electronics mimicking escaping steam, drifting among crystalline instrumental fragments.

On the first of the three concerts I attended, Beethoven actually showed up in two invigorating guises. My hunch is that very few people have ever heard the Egmont Overture played like this, arranged for solo accordion by William Schimmel. Those expecting a note-by-note replay were probably disappointed. Taking the 200-year-old piece by the horns, Schimmel allowed many of Beethoven’s climactic chords to blaze through, but the hallucinatory alleyways that formed the connecting tissue were the musician’s own.

Two works by Matthias Pintscher reflected yet more savvy programming: dernier espace avec introspecteur (1994) brought out the elegantly intense cellist Katinka Kleijn to interact with Schimmel, and Study II for Treatise on the Veil (2005), inspired by the velvety gestures of a Cy Twombly painting, used the same forces as for the Beethoven String Trio in G Major (1797) that closed the evening. In Pintscher’s Study, David Bowlin (violin) and Maiya Papach (viola) joined Kleijn in quiet utterances from strings muted with paper clips, creating wisps of refined, vibrato-less tone. Pintscher’s restraint made a fabulous counterpoint to Beethoven’s exuberant trio, written when the composer was in his late 20’s. With fluid, nimble playing from all concerned, the dizzying performance not only gave a nod to the essentially classical period emphasis of the festival as a whole, but bore out a comment I heard from Ms. Chase years ago, who commented on ICE and its seemingly effortless ability to combine old and new on the same program: “We like to play any kind of music, as long as it’s good.” Beethoven would have liked that.

Bruce Hodges