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Michel van der Aa's Chamber Music

As previewed yesterday, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) was at the Phillips Collection last night, to perform a selection of music by Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, as part of the Leading European Composers series. A weekday start time of 6 pm poses problems in getting to the museum on time, but in spite of a late arrival because of dastardly rush hour traffic, I heard the entire program except for the first piece, Memo for violin and cassette recorder. These pieces are not as technologically striking as the more complex stage works, and the combination of live performance with recorded track -- either pre-recorded or made and looped on the spot -- is nothing new. Nor is the choreography of musicians' movement while they perform, as in what was by all accounts a striking performance of Debussy's ballet score Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, with choreography for the musicians, by the University of Maryland Symphony last week. (I missed it, but here is Anne Midgette's review and a video.) Van der Aa's use of narratives, more or less abstract, to organize his ideas -- musical and visual -- puts his compositions in this vein into the territory of performance art.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Michel van der Aa, International Contemporary Ensemble offer emotion and drama (Washington Post, May 12)
Soloists interacted with pre-recorded soundtrack in both Oog for cello (1995) and Rekindle for flute (2009). The sense of control over the performance slipping back and forth between the live musician and the soundtrack was part of the drama. In many of the pieces, the visual or soundtrack element often outweighed the interest of the actual composition, which was sometimes enlivened by unusual sound effects -- cellist Michael Nicolas swooping his bow loudly through the air, flutist Eric Lamb clacking his keys or sharply inhaling for an entrance that never comes. A bleak existentialist film, shot in black and white, is the backdrop for Transit (video of the premiere embedded above), showing an old man trapped in a house whose door and windows refuse to open. Pianist Jacob Greenberg brought frenetic energy to the sort of chaotic toccata parts of the mostly ancillary piano part. Other pieces that did not incorporate video or soundtrack had other unusual features: in Quadrivial (1997), the mallet-wielding pianist initiates a series of coordinated hostilities between himself and the cellist, violinist, and flutist. (No musicians were harmed in the performance of this piece.) The Caprice for violin (1999) showed its connection to the Paganini etudes of the same name in a series of mindless, dissonant, almost machine-like displays, played robotically by violinist Erik Carlson. The excerpt of van der Aa's cello concerto, Up-Close, featuring only a section of the solo part and none of the video or choreography, showed again that without the visual component, this music loses most of its allure.

The musicians of ICE return to the area next Thursday, in a concert at the Atlas Performing Arts Center next Thursday (May 17, 8 pm).

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