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Matthias Pintscher Portrait at the Phillips

Sought after by the world’s top orchestras for both his compositions and his conducting, Matthias Pintscher (b. 1971) fit the bill for the Phillips Collection’s Leading European Composers series. His music, brought to life Thursday night with intimacy and precision by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), displayed a subdued fragility that belied its creator’s star power. The concert presented four of Pintscher’s pieces along with two conversations between him and Phillips music director Caroline Mousset. Pianist Phyllis Chen opened with on a clear day (2004), a shimmering, gossamer solo work that introduced the elements of Pintscher’s style: a relaxed, breathable tempo; hushed dynamics punctuated occasionally by outbursts; and, instead of linear development, a sense of subtle, gradually unfolding shifts in perspective.

Next was Study II for Treatise on the Veil (2005) for violin, viola, and cello, followed by Study III (2007) for violin. The two pieces, inspired by a monumental Cy Twombly abstraction, shared a similar structure. At first, the instruments’ strings were muted by paper clips, sounding otherworldly, vague, submerged in a dream. It was as if all “tone” had been removed from the sound, with only mechanical, ambient noises left behind: fingers sliding over strings, wood creaking under chin, a fractured panorama of scratches, squeaks, and overtones (that is, all the background elements we normally don’t pay attention to, but which are always present within an instrument’s sound, and which combine to make up its distinctive color). After attuning the listener’s ear to these sounds, Pintscher has the performers trade their paper clips for conventional mutes, and gradually bits of musical phrases start to emerge, as if from behind a veil. The instruments have recovered their usual voices, but we have been given new ears to hear them. They appear transfigured: a simple, held note on the cello is irradiated and multiplied by the layering of our new perspectives on it. As Pintscher commented, he wanted to show “the inner life of one stroke.”

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Phillips Collection concert showcases Matthias Pintscher (Washington Post, December 15)
The concert closed with Dernier espace avec introspecteur (1994), composed for accordion and cello after studying an installation by Joseph Beuys. The fundamentals of Pintscher's style were evident even in this early work. Like the other pieces, it elicited a preternatural silence in the room, so that ambient noises such as the accordion's heavy "breathing" could serve effectively as elements of the music. Here again the instruments sounded stifled, as if submerged in a strange atmosphere. They struggled to find their voices and sing together, and at times they met tenuously on a brief common pitch or rhythm before diverging once more on their separate vagrancies. Beyond the intricate soundscapes and captivating human interactions present in Matthias Pintscher's music, as well as ICE's inspired, painstaking performance of it, a greater and more enduring value lay in its power to awaken new forms of attentiveness in the listener. Pintscher, ICE, and the Phillips deserve commendation for a luminous evening.

Tomorrow's concert at the Phillips Collection will feature pianist Shai Wosner (December 16, 4 pm), featuring music of Beethoven and Debussy.

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