Conductor: George Benjamin
International Contemporary Ensemble
Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques − Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Ligeti: Piano Concerto − Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Benjamin: Into the Little Hill
Susan Bickley: Mezzo-soprano
Hila Plitmann: Soprano
About 24 hours after leaving the David H. Koch Theater shaken AND stirred by George Benjamin's Written on Skin, I was back at the Lincoln Center on Sunday afternoon, this time happily making my way to the fabulous Alice Tully Hall. The occasion was a resolutely contemporary concert performed by the trail-blazing International Contemporary Ensemble conducted by George Benjamin and featuring works by his teacher, Olivier Messiaen, and his exotic birds, one of his major inspirations, Gyorgy Ligeti, and his piano concerto, and finally his own chamber opera, Into the Little Hill. It is becoming obvious that the Mostly Mozart Festival is branching out big time these days, and their boldness was rightfully rewarded with an auditorium filled by an excited audience.
To make the package even more appealing, my fellow Lyonnais and fearless pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was going to contribute his formidable talent to the two taxing first pieces, and a duo of equally adventurous ladies, Susan Bickley and Hila Plitmann, was going to tackle the Little but still uncompromisingly challenging Hill. Not a bad way to spend another grossly hot and muggy summer weekend afternoon in an air-conditioned space.
As its name indicates, Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques puts together songs of birds from countries far away from France such as North America, South America, India, China and Malaysia. Using wind instruments, percussions and piano, the famously bird-loving composer created an unusual but fascinating piece celebrating the truly amazing world of birds, which the excellent orchestra brought to vibrant life with plenty of brightly colored nuances and a few odd sounds as well. What could have been just a series of pretty melodic tunes turned out to be a highly complex and boldly polyphonic work, which was also a lot of fun.
After brilliantly distinguishing himself with the tricky piano part in Oiseaux exotiques, Pierre-Laurent Aimard moved right into Ligeti's even more devilishly arduous piano concerto without missing a beat. The five movements presented such a wide array of sounds and influences that it was often hard to keep track of what was going on, so the audience did not have much of a choice but to hang on for dear life. On the other hand, Aimard, the consummate professional, remained firmly in charge of the performance, superbly backed up by the orchestra. Benjamin conducted with authority and insights, and we eventually all came out alive.
After experiencing Written on Skin in all its visceral glory the day before, I was kind of bracing myself for my next George Benjamin operatic experience while being fully aware that Into the Little Hill would for sure be shorter, and probably a little less intense too. Inspired by the popular story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the 40-minute opera, which was also the composer's first collaboration with the librettist Martin Crimp, is a rather unconventional endeavor with only two female singers busily narrating and playing all the parts, as well as some unexpected instruments like the banjo, the cimbalom and contrabass clarinet being put to clever use. And sure enough, on Sunday afternoon the mini-opera proved to be an ever-expanding marvel of musical and narrative invention, a deeply mysterious journey that was never fully explained, but nevertheless very much enjoyed in large part thanks to the terrific orchestra and singers. Conducting one's own work has to be a very special treat, and Benjamin could only have been pleased with how his adolescent effort came out on Sunday. And so were we.