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Sins of Omission, Signs of Genius

New York
Roulette Intermedium
06/10/2019 -  
Ursula Mamlok: Four German Songs for String Orchestra and Soprano (World Premiere) – Breezes – Concertino for Wind Quintet and Chamber Orchestra
Natasha Richardson: Cleave (American Premiere)
Felipe Lara: Brutal Mirrors (American Premiere)

Alice Teyssier (Soprano), The City of Tomorrow: Elise Blatchford (Flute), Stuart Breczinski (Oboe), Rane Moore (Clarinet), Nanci Belmont (Bassoon), Leander Star (Horn); Ensemble Adapter
The International Contemporary Ensemble, Nicholas DeMaison (Conductor)

The City of Tomorrow (© Courtesy of the Artists)

While musically fascinating, last night’s program at Roulette left listeners with a plethora of questions.

Who, for instance, were the International Contemporary Ensemble musicians that did such a stunning job? (No credits listed.) Who were the two percussionists that played a virtual Whole Earth Catalogue of paraphernalia during Felipe Lara’s Brutal Mirrors? (Ditto, anonymous.) It was nice to have a “German Icelandic” group of winds and percussionists, but one had no idea who they were, or how they were differentiated from the (finally!) names of the Australian “City of Tomorrow” wind quintet.

As for the music, the perceptive audience at Roulette could decipher Mr. Lara’s Brutal Mirrors or Natasha Anderson’s Cleave on their own, though a few choice words might have helped. As for Ursula Mamlok’s Breezes or her Concertino, no description was necessary. But the world premiere of Four German Songs for String Orchestra included a soprano with the group. And for those of us whose German is elementary, we had no titles or authors of the quartet of poems which she sung so well.

With Ms. Mamlok especially, this was a sin of omission. The late German-Jewish composer had a variety of styles, but in these Expressionistic poems, one wanted to know whether the words went with the music, whether the themes were Weltschmerz or Zeitgeist or Lebensmüde. One never knew.

Mind you, soprano Alice Teyssier (about whom nothing was written in the program) gave a telling picture of the words. Her soprano voice was effortless, forming light texture against the strings. The music itself had a Webernian brevity, but the drama of the strings was more lyrical in a Bergian way. And despite our ignorance, it was rather charming.

N. Anderson/U. Mamlok

As for Ursula Mamlok, I had known nothing until last week, finding her biography (leaving Nazi Germany for Ecuador, then America, studying with luminaries like Ernst Krenek, then back to Germany), and her Oboe Concerto written for Heinz Holliger.

What a discovery! Yes, it was atonal, but the entire work was light as a feather, it sung, it flew. And I found the same elements in her Concertino for Wind Quintet and Chamber Orchestra last night. The four movements weaved the quintet of Australia’s The City of Tomorrow in and around the strings, percussion and piano. One movement was a few measures long, the finale had a series of cadenzas by the winds.

The miracle of Ms. Mamlok is how she so naturally moved her atonal music to a few tonal measures and back again. Not suddenly, not as a startling time trip (like Penderecki’s Passion) but as if she had no other choice.

Her Breezes for piano, clarinet and strings was more picturesque. Wonderful little tunes, followed by flurries, followed by more quirky melodies and flurries, and a few grand climaxes.

Again, this was the most fluid writing. Not simply smooth or following the rules. But composition which seemed to float naturally from her apparently fecund inspiration.

The two works after the intermission were the opposite. They obviously were composed after long thoughts, with imagery, with puzzles for us all.

Not that Australian multi-talented Nathasha Anderson (solo performer, audiovisual installations, multi-channel diffusion) needed too much concentration. Here Cleave was, in fact a sound installation. Specifically, a string quartet on stage; two consorts on each side of the auditorium (lots of woodwinds, a harp which was plucked, bowed, struck), two marimbas, and probably other stuff. Conducting the three ensembles from the back was Nicholas DeMaison.

The result was around 25 minutes of sustained–very sustained–notes. Yet not quite perfectly sustained, not a Morton Feldman-style stasis. Initially, I was thinking of a Jackson Pollack painting, with all the elements slowly moving around each other. But Pollack left spaces between his creation, and we had no rests here.

Perhaps Georges Braque is more appropriate. No areas left untouched by the sounds. On the surface static, but underneath, the tones were moving oh so subtly. The four strings played their unremitting notes along with the side ensembles. Except that each note was a fungible note. Soft marimba tones, the bowing of the harp, the winds changing colors. Were there electronic white sounds? Possibly. The entire palette gave the illusion of immobility, yet the aural picture allowed us to ride on her slow-moving tide.

The final work by the Brazilian composer Felipe Lara was a puzzle in title (Brutal Mirrors) and in sound. All the three-continent ensembles were on stage for a clever, inventive, contrapuntal dance to which I for one was not invited.

The major sound was a growling noise from trombone, horn, or clarinet. Above that, the strings and winds gibbered about, the two percussionists rushing about to play their tools, rhythms changing, motives materializing and disappearing.

Brutal Mirrors was obviously the work of a virtuoso composer. Alas, the structure to this listener was emotionally as anonymous as the names of its executors.

Harry Rolnick



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