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New York
Rose Theater, Lincoln Center
08/05/2012 -  
Olivier Messiaen: Piece for Piano and String Quartet – Oiseaux exotiques
Luca Francesconi: Islands, for ensemble with solo piano (U.S. Premiere)
Jukka Tiensuu: nemo, for ensemble and electronics
Tristan Murail: La Barque mystique, for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano

Nicolas Hodges (Pianist)
International Contemporary Ensemble, Susanna Mälkki, (Guest Conductor)

S. Mälkki (© Simon Fowler)

Was this the second “Homage to Birds”? Or the third or fourth? A massive flock of avian tributes is part of the Mostly Mozart Festival this summer, starting off with The Murder of Crows, and continuing with a gaggle of chamber music, orchestras, lectures on birds, even a bird-watching walk through Central Park next weekend.

This is not a bad thing, all in all. And evidently, choosing birds as a theme is far more productive than, say, choosing pythons or moose. Admittedly, the crows in Murder of Crows were as ominous as some reptiles. But after that aberration (which continues through the month), the birds last night at Rose Theater were ensigns of jubilation, and harbingers of musical joy.

Certainly when the pinpoint perfect International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) performs, then meticulousness is an understatement. ICE is the “Mostly Mozart” artists-in-residence, and the choice is as splendid as it is unorthodox. Each one of the five pieces demanded the most delicate counterpoint of notes, shades, exactitude which no mere musical academy can teach. The ICE players, with the right conductor–and that sprightly Finnish leader Susanna Mälkki is one of their favorites–turn 21st Century music into miracles of sound.

Ironically, a work which a decade ago would have astounded any audience is today’s old hat, though. Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques is still a jolting virtual Audubon of bird sounds. One needn’t look for Messiaen’s mysticism or color or Indian rhythms (though they were all here). But as a tribute to birds, one only had to relax and listen to grackles, bobolinks and yes, exotic birds from all parts of the earth.

N. Hodges (© Marco Borggreve)

The British pianist Nicolas Hodges did the honors here, but he is such a sure-fired artist in any contemporary music that one expected nothing less.

Very much the ensemble player, he effortlessly whizzed through the massive pianistic cadenzas–in fact, Luca Francesconi’s Islands seemed one huge cadenza.

Two works had their plusses. Messiaen’s Piece for Piano and String Quartet was written just before his death, and had the simplicity of a palindrome, albeit with a birdcall or two, and good interplay between Mr. Hodges and the four strings.

Tristan Murail is a gorgeous orchestral composer, one of the original “spectralists” for whom a listening experience needs no orientation. His La Barque mystique, though, based on the nuances of a group or surrealistic paintings, was so delicate, so sensitive, that it was lost in the Rose Theatre. La Barque mystique needs a tiny room, an audience of perhaps three or four, total darkness, and perhaps the aroma of perfume or a crystal of absinthe.

The greatest partnership–and by far the most memorable work–was between Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu (who manipulated a computer back in the audience), and his compatriot Ms. Mälkki. They and ICE created a 23-minute sound tapestry of overwhelming dimensions. The title itself, nemo, could have referred to the Greek “Nobody” or Verne’s captain. But that was forgotten in a language of orchestra, samplings of birds and whales, electronic buzzing that enveloped the stage and the audience.

I had previously thought that the most mystical bass sounds came from Tibetan and Bhutanese trumpets played at outdoor festivals, But Mr. Tiensuu outdid this with sounds that came from the bowels of the earth. This was the opposite of Tristan Murail’s bijoux, for Mr. Tiensuu glories in the intensity, the heaving colors, colors which revolved through the orchestra and blasted out to the packed audience.

The piece was a long long way from a mere “homage for birds” but his music, as well as the miracles of ICE were able to lift these ears way into avian stratosphere.

Harry Rolnick



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