Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Israel Contemporary Players host the Tremolo Ensemble in the opening concert of the 2014-2015 season

The Israel Contemporary Players, under their long-standing house conductor Zsolt Nagy, opened the 24th season with a collection of works by some of the 20th century’s greatest composers. The ensemble was joined by Ensemble Tremolo (director: Tomer Yariv) and soloists. Dan Yuhas and Zmira Lutzky serve as the ICP’s musical directors. This writer attended the concert at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim on September 21st 2014.

As in the ICP’s opening concert 23 years ago, this program opened with “Ionisation” by French-born Edgard Varèse (1883-1965). It is scored exclusively for percussion instruments: crash cymbal, bass drums, concerros (muffled cow-bells struck with a drum stick), high and low tam-tams, gong, bongos, side drum, high and low sirens, slapstick (clapper), guiros (gourd), woodblocks, claves (two wood dowels), triangles, snare drums, maracas, tarole (a high-pitched drum), suspended cymbals, sleigh bells, tubular chimes, cymbals, castanets, celesta, tambourine, anvils and piano. With only chimes, celesta and piano bearing equal-tempered pitch. “Ionisation” (1929-1931) begun six years after the composer immigrated to the USA and referred to by the composer as the “liberation of sound”, became a “landmark”, the the first of many all-percussion scores to be written in the 20th century. In what could have culminated as a chaotic din in the wrong hands, the young artists here were meticulous in bringing to life the score’s subtlety and order, with its richly layered and changing sonorities – high, medium, low but also those produced by skin, metal and wood-tone - its small groups, its homophonic and unison moments, wrenching tempo changes and the grand sonorous coda issued in by the pitched instruments (although pitch here is immaterial) - piano, celesta and chimes – finally fading away with bells, tam-tams and suspended cymbals. The precision and immediacy of the performance were as gripping as was watching it all happen.

Then to the very different sound world of Henry Cowell (1897-1965), one of the most far-reaching and open-minded musical revolutionaries of the USA, a composer who viewed any sound as musical substance with which he could work. In the “Aeolian Harp” (c.1923), a piano piece, Cowell instructs the performer to play inside the piano by sweeping, scraping, strumming and muting the strings. “Aeolian Harp” takes the ancient idea of harps being played by the wind; the piano is used as a zither, with the performer standing at the keyboard, plucking solo notes and strumming chords, while holding down keys in chord formation to produce enchanting harmonies. In his introduction to the score, the composer gives very detailed instructions as to how to produce the effects he has in mind. Pianist Naaman Wagner, using Cowell’s old-fashioned harmonic idiom in this new setting, fashioned the work in its glistening delicacy and varied dynamics. Now based in Berlin, Naaman Wagner is a soloist and chamber musician and a regular performer with the ICP.

Naaman Wagner then performed German composer Helmut Lachenmann’s (b.1935) piano study “Guero” (1969). The piece stems from the period when the composer was defining his style of “musique concrète instrumentale” (tape music pioneer Pierre Schaefer initiated the term “musique concrète”), “in which the sound events are chosen and organized so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities themselves…” in Lachenmann’s words. In “Guero”, the composer takes a thorough exploration of the instrument’s acoustic possibilities as his starting point and begins to build structures. The guero, or guiro is an open-ended hollow gourd with parallel notches along one side; it is played by rubbing a stick along the notches. In his program notes, Lachenmann describes “Guero” as a “six-manual variant of the eponymous Latin American instrument. Re-creating the composer’s rejection of tradition piano technique, Naaman Wagner showed the order present in the course of the piece, moving from the vertical surfaces of the white keys to their horizontal surfaces, via the black keys into the piano, playing the pegs and, finally, the strings, using the rippling sound of fingernails along the keys as the work’s basic material. Naaman Wagner is confident and convincing, enlisting the listener’s curiosity as he speaks in Lachenmann’s musical language with comfortable fluency.

Following a dangerously unproductive three year spell in Bela Bartok’s life, Concerto no.1 for Piano and Orchestra was written in 1926 along with other piano works for his upcoming concert appearances. An impressive showpiece, Bartok (1881-1945) wrote it in order to have a new piece to perform with orchestras. The solo piano role - with its large, awkward leaps, dense clusters demanding wide stretches of the hand, relentless speed and severe demands on the outer, weaker fingers - says much about the composer’s own virtuosity on the instrument. In his search for new sounds and sonorities, Bartok sees the piano as a percussion instrument. This was the last large piece in which Bartok was to use a key signature. The ICP concert included the second movement of Bela Bartok’s Concerto no.1, scored for piano, winds and percussion, but with no strings. We heard Naaman Wagner as soloist in a haunting dialogue between piano and percussion, the reverie supported by filigree percussion playing in a sensitive, searching reading of the movement.

Then to “Okho”, a unique, poly-cultural percussion work by ethnic Greek composer, theorist and architect-engineer Iannis Xanakis (1922-2001), scored for three performers on djembe and bass drum and premiered in Paris in 1989. A naturalized French citizen, the composer wrote the work for celebrations of the French Bicentennial. The djembe, or djembé, is a rope-tuned, skin-covered goblet drum originally from West Africa. It is powerful and resonant and can produce a variety of sounds. A study in repetition and different ways of introducing irregularity, the work has six sections, each different in intensity, tempo and rhythmic texture. Lior Eldad, Ziv Kaplan and Daniel Solomonov, each playing a number of drums, gave a precise, polished and totally engaging performance. As it proceeded, one’s ear began to pick up on an interesting play of pitches.

Of his “Music for Pieces of Wood” (1973), American composer Steve Reich wrote that the work had grown out of “a desire to make music with the simplest possible instruments…Performed by five players, its rhythmic structure is based entirely on the process of rhythmic build-ups or the substitution of beats for rests, and is in three sections of decreasing pattern lengths: 6/4, 4/4, 3/4.” Pitch is established by the wooden claves, but once the piece has begun, this becomes a background sound basis. Each of the three sections employs a new progression to build density and is connected to the neighboring section via the basic quarter note pulse presented by the first player. In solos, smaller combinations and tutti, Lior Eldad, Daniel Solomonov, Nadav Ovadia, Tomer Galili and Oded Geizhals exhibited amazing intensity of concentration and inter-communication in the work, the text of which is written in precise notation but with instructions to repeat each bar “approximately” the number of times indicated.

The program ended as it left the audience right at the turn of the 21st century with Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) “With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles” (2000), a setting of poems by Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists playing the following instruments: triangle, crotales (antique cymbals), pair of cymbals (high, with a coughing sound), cymbal (sounding like a broken pot), 2 suspended cymbals (high, low), tam-tam or gong (low), 2 cowbells (one dull, one lower), Japanese bell (high), Japanese “rin” temple bells (tuned), Burmese gongs (tuned), tubular bells, 3 snare drums, 2 high rototoms (rotary drums), bongo or conga (tuned), 3 bongos, tambourine, 2 tom-toms (one low but not resonant), log drum, wood drum (muffled), low slit drum, 2 bass drums (medium, low), 4 temple blocks, woodblock, sandpaper blocks, claves, castanets, Japanese wooden rattle, sistrum (rattle), chimes (unpitched), maraca, ratchet, guiro, vibraslap (stiff wire connecting a wood ball to a hollow box), large whip, 2 slide whistles, railway whistle, 2 police whistles, 2 siren whistles, metal pipe, sopranino ocarina in F, 2 soprano ocarinas in C, 3 recorders (soprano, alto, tenor), 4 Hohner M270 chromonicas, lion’s roar, 2 flexatones (flexible metal sheet suspended in a wire frame), glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, 2 marimbas and bass marimba. Joining the highly skilful percussionists was Israeli contralto Noa Frenkel, a highly versatile and gregarious contralto with a rich palette of colors, a singer with a repertoire spanning from Renaissance to contemporary music. She gave superb insight into each of the seven miniatures, with their play of the surreal and the absurd. From the first utterance of the opening song, “Ballad”, performed with abundant chest voice, wild facial expression and uncanny laughter, she swept the audience into a world governed by the unpredictable:
‘A mountain walks.
Another mountain comes towards it.
The wolves howl:
Do not crush us!
I am a mountain.
You, too, are a mountain.
We are indifferent to that.’
Frenkel collaborates closely with the ensemble: in the homophonic “Chinese Temple”, the effect is decidedly bizarre as she uses her voice is as an unpitched bell. “Bitter-Sweet”, evocative and melodious, is the closest piece to a strophic Hungarian folk song, whereas in “Parakeet” Frenkel creates colorful patter in gibberish. Noa Frenkel and the instrumentalists had the audience sitting at the edge of their seats as they presented the theatrical work in all its modernist complexity colored by both childish directness and sophistication with a touch of melancholy. Weöres spoke of art as a land of possibility rather than reality or, rather, “it describes level of reality beneath the troubled surface.”

The Israel Contemporary Players’s opening concert for the 2014-2015 season presented some landmarks of modern music. It was a celebration of fine performance, much of it percussion-centred, of rigorous preparation, deep enquiry into the works and conviction of the musical message of each. It was also a celebration of the outstanding, high level of young Israeli performers.

No comments: