A Compelling George Benjamin Conducts a Trio of Masterworks

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart Festival 2015 (3), Messiaen, Ligeti, Benjamin: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Hila Plitmann (soprano), Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), International Contemporary Ensemble, George Benjamin (conductor). Alice Tully Hall, New York City. 16.8.2015 (BH)

Messiaen: Oiseaux Exotiques (1955-56)
Ligeti: Piano Concerto (1985-88)
George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill (2006)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Hila Plitmann (soprano), Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
International Contemporary Ensemble
George Benjamin (conductor)

In a savvy programming stroke at last week’s Mostly Mozart Festival, Thursday’s performance of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was followed by an hour-long concert of music from Dai Fujikura, who studied with Benjamin. A few days later, in this concert at Alice Tully Hall, Benjamin led a striking reading of his first opera, plus major scores by Messiaen (one of his teachers) and Ligeti.

Into the Little Hill makes a disturbing 45 minutes. Based on the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, librettist Martin Crimp tweaks the story to create a much more unsettling take on “the other.” As a metaphor for outsiders, rats make an uncomfortable comparison, and what to make of rats who not only eat rice and bread, but also electricity and concrete? To illustrate Crimp’s unnerving words, Benjamin deploys two female vocalists, a stratospherically high soprano (Hila Plitmann) who played the Pied Piper-inspired role (the Stranger, with no eyes, nose, or ears) as well as the Minister’s Child, and a dusky mezzo (Susan Bickley), who sang the roles of the increasingly frightened Minister and his wife. The musicians—here, the superbly alert International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)—are augmented with unusual timbres like a mandolin, banjo, cimbalom and basset horns.

Like Written on Skin (presented earlier in the week), this 40-minute opera grabbed one by the throat, thanks to Plitmann’s uncanny accuracy in notes far above the stave, and Bickley’s hushed utterances, often accompanied by a baleful stare. It is high praise to say that I was often uncomfortable, trying unsuccessfully to shield myself from their intensity. Above all, Benjamin’s conducting and the ensemble’s responsiveness made a powerful impression; like Boulez, he cuts a comparatively quiet presence on the podium, using minimal gestures that can trigger sudden savagery.

He and the musicians were no less effective in Ligeti’s frenetic Piano Concerto, with the great Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist. At this point, Aimard must be considered one of the work’s most colorful interpreters (not to mention, one of the few pianists who can actually play it). The orchestration includes some surprises, such as slide-whistles pitted against double bass. Throughout the five movements—which include a shiveringly virtuosic piano cadenza—complicated rhythms defy one’s ability to track them all. In one mechanistic sequence, the ensemble seems to be layering six different meters simultaneously. The fourth movement was especially effective, with Aimard’s fixed keyboard pitches in tangy opposition to non-standard tuning in the ensemble, microtones flying out everywhere. Again, Benjamin’s focused, no-nonsense approach only emphasized the score’s brilliance.

Aimard also joined the ICE musicians for the opening, Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques, in a vibrant, often shrieking reading, reflecting the sometimes-raucous bird sounds etched by the composer. Against monolithic blocks from the ensemble (winds and percussion), Aimard plunged into the piano role as if possessed, with occasional punctuation from some formidable gongs.

Bruce Hodges

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