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Fun and Fungibility

New York
Starr Theater, Alice Tully Concert Hall
08/11/2011 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Adagio, K. 356, arranged by Salvatore Sciarrino (U.S. premiere) – Serenade for Winds in B-flat Major, K. 361 (“Gran Partita”)
Matthias Pintscher: Occultation
Arnold Schoenberg: Kammersymphonie No.1 , Opus 9

Gareth Plowers (Trumpet), David Byrd-Marrow (Horn)
International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Matthias Pintscher (Conductor)

ICE (© International Contemporary Ensemble)

What’s in a name? Last week Lincoln Center’s “Mostly Mozart” festival presented the composer’s Solemn Vespers, which were anything but solemn. Thursday night, Matthias Pintscher conducted a wind serenade, subtitled “Gran Partita”, and he made the word “Grand” into a laughable understatement, while the word “wind” was turned into a tornado.

True, Mozart’s inspiration never flags, yet one knows instinctively here that Mozart was plainly having a good time when he write this. Not the 50-minute length or the challenging orchestration, but seven movements which never lacked in enthusiasm, humor and, ofttimes, unearthly beauty. The first slow movement could have been part of a clarinet concerto or a soprano aria. The fake endings for the first and final movements sound like mock Beethoven. And oh, how he does love those trios of the two minuets.

That orchestration, though, could throw any conductor. And even Matthias Pintscher, whose first vocation was conductor, couldn’t always balance the colors.

He certainly tried, first by putting first by sitting the clarinet soloist a good foot away from the rest of the ensemble. (Granted, he looked like an errant schoolboy, sitting in the corner, but a few notes from his instrument chased away that image.)

Second, he whipsawed the ensemble into some gorgeous (if sometimes flawed playing). One had to wonder about Mozart’s daring orchestra here. A bass fiddle, two basset horns, two bassoons and French horns, all of which could well unhinge the clarinets and oboes. Recordings of Gran Partita can separate the colors, but where I was sitting, to the left of the ensemble, the growling bass notes sometimes distracted from the marvelous solo clarinets.

But the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) has such virtuosi–and a fungibility of endless proportions–that nothing really get sin their way.

The first work was pure chamber: Salvatore Sciarrino’s arrangement of a Mozart work for Ben Franklin’s invention, the glass harmonica. Here, the flute took from the glass (except for the final note), doing variations which glass rubbing could duplicate, with a soft, almost mute trumpet in the background.

The Schoenberg Chamber Symphony can be played perfectly–and stodgily–by Pierre Boulez. I frankly preferred Matthias Pintscher’s dancing, light spicy work here. Nothing was slack in the slow section, much was frisky in the fast sections (with some little Viennese twists), and the combination of ICE and Pintscher brought out all the contrapuntal puzzles, the whooping horns and the Mahler-like martial sarcasm.

M. Pintscher (© Courtesy of the Artist)

The highlight, though, had to be Matthias Pintscher’s Occultation. The program printed a bleak and desolate poem by Longfellow called The Occultation of Orion–but this only made Mr. Pintscher’s gorgeous tapestry that much more exciting.

He is a stratospheric composer at his best, and this had all the trademarks. Brilliant spurts of musical lightning, whispering moments from the orchestra and–most impressive of all–the concerto-like work of trumpet Gareth Plowers and French horn David Byrd-Marrow. Playing together or apart, muted or open horns, converging on each other, or drawing into a singular loud chorus, this is a work which–at first hearing–is exciting, mysterious, precise and transporting. Hopefully, a second hearing (or recording) is in the offing.

Harry Rolnick



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