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Ionarts in Provence: Ensemble Intercontemporain

The Ensemble intercontemporain’s sole appearance at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence was not to be missed. Founded in 1976 by Pierre Boulez and funded by the French Ministry of Culture, the Ensemble has been a leading exponent of music of the 20th century and later. Susanna Mälkki, the Finnish Music Director of the Ensemble, conducted the performance of the works of Luca Francesconi (1956-), Luciano Berio (1925-2003), and Ivan Fedele (1953-) at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume.

The opening work, Francesconi’s Da capo for 9 instruments (1985-86) began with quiet flutters by clarinet and flute that were soon expanded by all. Eventually the music was flying, colorfully shooting everywhere. The technically flawless frenzy of vibraphone, harp, piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, and string trio caused an appropriate snapping sound of a broken harp string. Da capo was clearly the least percussive piece on the program, which seems like a rarity in contemporary classical music; yet, it had the strongest rhythm.

Berio’s O King (1967) is an homage to Martin Luther King, Jr., and consists of soft, long notes that are interspersed with strong accents that increasingly become a point of interest. Fedele’s Chord (1986) began with sharp pizzicato notes and muted French horns. The instruments – two French horns, two clarinets, violin, cello, vibraphone, and harp – were barely used in their normal function, except for the two clarinets that softly imitated each other near the end. Francesconi’s A Fuoco, 4e studio sulla memoria for guitar and ensemble (1995) featured guitarist Pablo Márquez and created an intense atmosphere with a slow, steady beat sustained by alternating single notes from different ensemble members. This was among the occasional cello scraping, key shaking of the bass clarinet, and placing of a violin bow down a marimba tube for percussive effect.

Mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg was featured in Berio’s Circles for voice, harp, and two percussionists (1960), a work in three parts involving three poems by E. E. Cummings. With the text distorted and mostly in slow motion, Lixenberg was in a different position on the stage for each section and often joined in the percussion herself with woodblocks, etc. Performed without conductor, Lixenberg, often finding her pitch with a tuning fork, did an admirable job leading this complex work. Fedele’s Richiamo for brass, percussion, and electronic synthesizer (1994) concluded the program and did the most to manipulate the audiences’ sense of time. This extension of time was helped by the ethereal timbres of the percussion and electronic synthesizer.

Susanna Mälkki’s sober conducting consisted solely of clear beat patterns and cues. It will be fascinating to see where she leads the Ensemble in her tenure – hopefully to Washington, D.C.!


Anonymous said...

"Susanna Mälkki’s sober conducting consisted solely of clear beat patterns and cues." opposed to what? ISn't that exactly what the players are looking for? So "She did her job superbly" would be another way of putting it?

Michael Lodico said...

Dear Anonymous: As opposed to attracting attention to herself by putting on a show for the audience... Indeed, she did a superb job.