Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Israel Contemporary Players (conductor: Zsolt Nagy) open the 2015-2016 season with works spanning 100 years

The Israel Contemporary Players opened its 25th “Discoveries” season with a representative selection of the ensemble’s wide range of repertoire, from Stravinsky’s “Ragtime”, to music of Ligeti, to folk-flavored music, to the premiering of a work by Eitan Steinberg, with music from England, Europe and Israel. The concert was conducted by Professor Zsolt Nagy (b. Gyula Hungary, 1957), who has served as chief conductor and artistic adviser to the ICP since 1999. A collaboration of The Voice of Music IBA Israeli radio and the Jerusalem Music Centre Mishkenot Sha’ananim, with the support of the Ministry of Culture and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, the series is under the artistic direction of Dan Yuhas and Zmira Lutzky. This writer attended the concert on November 1st 2015 at the Jerusalem Music Centre.

The program opened with “Pierrot on the Stage of Desire” (1998) by British conductor and composer Roger Redgate (b.1958), a work for flute, clarinet, violin, percussion and piano, written in the “New Complexity” style of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As the title infers, the piece focuses on the character of the dreamy, naïve clown Pierrot and his sadly unrequited love for Columbine.  In three miniature but evocative and richly designed movements, the players presented the opening movement’s feisty, witty character in crisp, articulate gestures, the middle movement more introspective than the two outer movements. With fine clarinet playing on the part of Danny Erdman, the sextet’s articulate and skillful performance offered much to fire the listener’s imagination, as the agitated third movement finally dissipated into nowhere. Redgate, who has worked in the fields of jazz, improvised music and performance art, writes music for film and television and writes about music. In 1999, he collaborated with the New York-based experimental rock band GAWK.

Then to what Zmira Lutzky referred to as a significant work in the development of modern chamber music – György Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. Composed 1969-1970, it is scored for flute, clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), horn, trombone, harpsichord (doubling Hammond organ), piano (doubling celesta) and solo strings. As to its format, it is not a concerto in the conventional sense but “all 13 players are virtuoso soloists and all are treated as equals”, in the composer’s words.  This being the case, the Israel Contemporary Players’ reading of it was beguiling and not just for its virtuosic performance. Nagy brought his ensemble together in articulate and wonderfully precise playing of the work’s extraordinary textures and different techniques, rendering it transparent, accessible and exciting. In its four contrasting movements, concluding with a wild, whirring series of rapid cadences, the work reminds the listener that this major classical work, in its inventive, playful, poetic and communicative utterance, still has much to say to today’s audiences.

We then heard the Israeli premiere of “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart II” for 10 instruments by Israeli composer Eitan Steinberg (b. 1955), one of today’s prominent Israeli composers.  “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart II” was commissioned and premiered in 2011 by the El Perro Andaluz Ensemble (Dresden, Germany.)  It is the second of three pieces, each the result of a process of change, referred to by Steinberg as non-linear change, with the composer interested in examining what might constitute development or a lack thereof in the pieces. Scored for orchestra, “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart I” was premiered by the Israel Camerata Jerusalem in 2008. “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart III” for symphony orchestra was premiered in 2013 by the Tbilisi Symphony, Georgia, conducted by Vakhtang Kakhidze. Referring to the pieces and their title, Steinberg spoke of the cosmos and the heart as what we all possess, that what we do has impact on the cosmos, with the cosmos also influencing our actions. When composing the work, what was echoing in the composer’s mind was that Albert Einstein had claimed that past and present are only directions like left and right, forward and backwards. Over recent years, as Steinberg has returned to the work to change parts here and there, creating new versions, it has gone through its own natural processes, hence its three versions. “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart II”, as performed at the ICP concert, is scored for strings, flute, clarinet, percussion, accordion and piano.  A richly wrought canvas comprising tiny fragments as well as intense drawn-out sounds, a sprinkling of tonal references, dancelike moments, the use of insistent ostinato, a nostalgic folk-type melody played on accordion, Prof. Steinberg’s orchestration and palette of timbres are both sophisticated and attractive, personal and emotional, making for an exhilarating listening experience.

Igor Stravinsky’s “Ragtime” (1918), one of the composer’s “essays in jazz portraiture”, is scored for flute, clarinet, 2 horns, trombone, bass drum, snare drum, side drum, cymbals, 2 violins, viola, double bass and cimbalom. In 1915, Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet took Stravinsky to hear Aladar Racz playing the Hungarian cimbalom - a hammered dulcimer from Eastern Europe, introduced into Hungary by the Roma (Gypsy) people - at a bar in Geneva. Stravinsky, fascinated by the trapezoid shape of the instrument and its rich timbre, decided to buy one; he and Racz found an elderly Hungarian gypsy with one for sale. The composer  first used it to produce raucous animal effects in his chamber opera-ballet “Renard”, later using it wherever possible.  Assuming an almost solo role in “Ragtime” (an extension of the dance in “A Soldier’s Tale”), Stravinsky used the cimbalom to imitate the sound of a honky-tonk piano. Guest artist at this ICP concert, Hungarian composer, improviser, jazz musician and master of the cimbalom Miklós Lukács (b.1977), in his first Israeli visit, joined Nagy and the ensemble in a performance that was jaunty, clean, pithy, bristling with energy and tinged with Stravinsky’s brand of cynicism, the uncommonly grainy character of the cimbalom infusing a unique voice into the texture. The artist played on the Israel Contemporary Players' cimbalom, tuned chromatically.

The program concluded with “Da Capo” (2003-2004) for cimbalom or marimba and ensemble by Hungarian conductor and composer Peter Eötvös (b.1944), with Miklós Lukács performing the cimbalom part. In an interview with Tünde Szitha appearing in the blog of Universal Music Publishing Classical in May of 2014, Eötvös spoke of the work’s title as relating to the structure of the work, to the constant process of starting afresh. “The music begins and reaches a certain point, but, before it is completed, it starts again…in a different way…nine times.” Introducing fragments of themes from Mozart archives as initial ideas, these launch a creative process transforming them into Eötvös’ own music. Referring to it as his “newest and oldest” work, the composer suggests that the piece could be subtitled “Reading Mozart”, but speaks of its scoring as being very different from Mozart’s orchestration, considering the fact that some of the instruments he uses did not exist in Mozart’s time. The essential difference lies in the variety of percussion instruments, not to speak of the instrument in the solo role. The latter was inspired by Miklós Lukács’ virtuoso playing, which, as we heard, was no understatement. In his dazzling performance, underlining the composer’s complex polyphonic writing, Lukács joins the ICP, serving as soloist and ensemble player as Eötvös runs the listener through the unpredictable course of “Da Capo”, its busy, split-character canvas juxtaposing  velvety, touching Mozart gestures with blatant, fiery moments of atonality, the use of ostinati, some references to jazz and  devil-may-care energy. For his encore, Miklós Lukács played his own composition "After Dark", a  folk-music-inspired piece, now using his hands rather than hammers in a virtuosic and beguiling performance.

In yet another evening of polished, dedicated and finely detailed performance, Maestro Nagy (his direction fluid, articulate and emanating dedication to the music and the ICP) and members of the Israel Contemporary Players opened the new concert season with an outstanding evening of music.

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