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Shouts and Murmurs

New York
Miller Theatre at Columbia University
05/12/2012 -  
Hilda Paredes: Corazon de Onix – Senales – Ah Paaxo'Ob
Irvine Arditti (violin)
Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman (conductor)

H. Paredes (© Tony Hutchings)

It's been many years since I've been to a "Composer Portraits" concert at Miller Theatre, but fortunately things haven't changed. There is always a medium-sized but devout, attentive audience that is treated to extraordinary performances by leading composers from around the world. Tonight's performers, the excellent young Ensemble Signal, are a virtual compendium of members of many of New York's leading new music groups fleshed out by crackerjack freelancers. Brad Lubman, the exceptionally clear and precise conductor, and Irvine Arditti, arguably the greatest living violinist that specializes in new music (and also Hilda Paredes' husband), joined the group to produce a riveting evening that for many (including myself) was a first in-depth introduction to Paredes' music.

Reading Paredes' bio and various writings about her music, several themes recur. Her Mexican heritage, as well as her adoption into the contemporary music scene in London (where she now lives) are always underscored, as is her interest in Mayan cultures. Several names pop up as influences, and one can hear them peek through the works: Elliott Carter, the Manchester School (Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Goehr), Boulez and Ligeti spring immediately to my mind. Asked to describe her music, however, I would tend towards the more abstract. She creates masterful, colorful gestures, incorporating virtually every conceivable playing technique that has been explored in the last half-century. Somewhat exotic instruments make cameos, such as the cimbalom in Senales and steel drum in Ah Paaxo'Ob. The music is often highly polyphonic and shifts rapidly. Harmony and melody are possibly row-derived, with occasional Webern-esque filaments of lyrical melody appearing and quickly disintegrating. Perhaps the most obvious reference to her Central American heritage is an energy that flows through the pieces, even in static sections, born of unique rhythmic combinations.

Structurally, the first two works on the program struck me as rather conservative, despite the structures being filled out with novel sounds. Just as Beethoven would pass his gestures around the string quartet or orchestra, Paredes introduces a series of gestures and forms a structure around its journey throughout the given ensemble. Indeed, Corazon de Onix, a mixed sextet composed in 2005, almost seemed to have what some have described as a "rotational" form: ideas are presented and then rotated through again and again in new contexts. A fanfare-like flute figure that lead through the ensemble to a culminating cluster of glissandi in the strings was the basic shape, which was then treated to numerous reinterpretations, all constantly moving around sharp punctuations in rhythmic unison.

The ensemble was expanded for the world premiere of Señales, which pitted Mr. Arditti's formidable fiddling agains the ensemble. Despite being composed seven years later, the gestural style was very similar to the previous piece, although the overall mood was more athletic. With the larger ensemble came more possibilities for coloristic reinterpretation, and Paredes' penchant for glissandi culminated in Ligeti-esque rushes up the natural harmonics for the horn. Whispers of direct chromaticism in the woodwinds seemed like ancient artifacts on an alien landscape. The most affecting and effective passage was a combative, accompanied cadenza-like section that had Mr. Arditti tossing off devilish figuration while being interrupted, countered and embellished by the ensemble. The energy here was infectious, and one hoped that it would carry into a true peroration. Instead, the music receded, and a similar gesture that ended Corazon de Onix (and would also end Ah Paaxo'Ob)--a wink of the eye--concluded the piece.

These two works were manic. Paredes seemed overly eager to compose change into her music. One longed for a passage that simmered, that allowed an idea to be savored before something was added or taken away. The impression was one of eagerness and impatience.

That wasn't the case with Ah Paaxo'Ob, which again saw more players join the proceedings. Surprisingly the earliest-composed work on the program, it was the most successful, largely because the structure seemed to strike a more satisfactory balance between change and stasis. Indeed, the haunting opening texture, again echoing Ligeti's "cloud music" and dolefully punctuated by harp harmonics, was allowed to sit for a moment. The piece's title, which roughly translates to "those who play the music," referred to the emergence, one by one, of soloists from the ensemble that introduced musical cells that were then explored by the ensemble. These soloists--horn, English horn, trumpet and bassoon--navigated the extremes of Paredes' demands with ease. The wonderful episode initiated by the trumpet's repeated-note gesture, which was then passed around the ensemble and initiated a riotous, highly rhythmic and cutthroat passage, brought to mind the sparkling exhilaration in passages of Boulez's best works.

It was wonderful to have Mrs. Paredes speak briefly about her music after intermission and before Ah Paaxo'Ob. Her explanation of the titles of her works (often in Mayan), the influences of various musical cultures (Indian rhythms and Gamelan music) and her work with electronic and computer music at IRCAM further illuminated an already invigorating concert. More than anything, this concert presented a composer worth investigating and the hugely talented Ensemble Signal, who played these three Herculean works with enthusiasm and finesse.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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