International Contemporary Ensemble
Baldur Brönnimann: Conductor
Pauline Oliveros: Earth Ears
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: æquilibria
Liza Lim: How Forests Think
Wu Wei: Sheng
For better or worse, the Mostly Mozart Festival essentially focuses on tried-and-true composers and works, but exceptions do exist. And after a traditional evening with Brahms, Bach and Mendelssohn the previous week, it was time for my friend Rose and me to boldly step into new contemporary classical music territory in the expert company of the International Contemporary Ensemble and Baldur Brönnimann in the pleasantly intimate Merkin Concert Hall.
Beside the excitement of discovering new music, I was also delighted when I saw the name of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir on the program. I had fully enjoyed her short, subtly intricate and yet extremely powerful Aeriality performed by the New York Philharmonic back in May, and I had been very eager to become better acquainted with the rest of her œuvre.
Therefore, one week after subjecting my poor eardrums to much amplified loudness in the name of Schubert, I was back for more music loosely inspired by Schubert and the Romantics, although this time the evening would revolve around the ever-green theme of the nature. Not a bad idea in our days of preoccupying climate changes, and even more preoccupying denials of responsibility for them.
It was easy to figure out that we were in for a special experience by the impressive eclecticism of the instruments noticed in the small orchestra, and they were all put to work at various times in a carefully balanced fashion by their brilliant handlers for American avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros’ Earth Ears. Plenty of those occurrences sounded odd and random, but that was not a bad thing as it forced the audience to pay attention to what was going on and meet the piece halfway, realizing then that there was a method to the apparent madness, instead of just relaxing and being sucked up into the restless music.
On the other hand, it was definitely tempting to just relax and be sucked up into the organic beauty and overall serenity of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s æquilibria, which was having its US premiere on Monday night. Plenty of understated details could be worked out for sure, and things did get strikingly dicey in some spots, but the resolute continuation of the music, naturally flowing, quietly sophisticated and discreetly hypnotic, made for an immensely rewarding, full immersion journey into the earth.
We went back to more esoteric sounds, including from the conspicuous sheng, a Chinese free reed wind instrument consisting of vertical bamboo pipes, and from beads being poured inside a violin and percussion, for the US premiere of Australian composer Liza Lim’s How Forests Think. And forests apparently do an awful lot of thinking as the possibilities of the instruments were extended to their utmost. Although these musical descriptions of relationships among trees were often intriguing and engaging, it sometimes felt like the piece was extending its welcome. Toward the end, maestro Brönnimann just took a seat behind the orchestra as light was slowly fading away, effectively bringing the performance to a natural conclusion.