Ives Ensemble

Ives Ensemble

Ives Ensemble, Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam

Artistic Director John Snijders’ idea for this concert was to feature composers who, at some point in their career, emigrated from their place of birth. There were world premieres of works by Kunsu Shim (born in Korea, resident in Germany), Tom Johnson (born in Colorado, resident in Paris) and Robert Manthey (born in New Jersey, resident in the Netherlands) as well as Dutch premieres of works by Gyula Csapó (born in Hungary, studied in the USA and settled in Canada) and Clarence Barlow (born in Calcutta, now living in California). The concert closed with a 1993 work by Iannis Xenakis, who was born in Greece, but who lived in Paris most of his professional life.

Kunsu Shim’s für Ives Ensemble (2007) was a somewhat duplicitous opener. Shim immediately focused the ear with a beautifully orchestrated gesture of exquisite fragility: a stratospherically high pitch, quietly sustained by a flute and string quintet and underpinned by a pianissimo bass drum tremolo. After a pause, the gesture was repeated. Another long pause, a very brief flutter of notes, and the piece was over. I was (and remain) ambiguous about this seemingly throwaway finish – was it a gentle lesson in impermanence, or a callous betrayal of such fine opening material, and, by implication, a betrayal of the audience?

Gyula Csapó’s multi-sectional Tundragobelin (2002), for clarinet, piano, viola and cello, occasionally echoed the characteristic stasis of late works by the composer’s former teacher, Morton Feldman, through skewed repetition and continuous sensitive revoicing and reorchestration of harmony. These sections I found rewarding, but there were also long tracts of rather cluttered, unfocused gestural writing, and these tended to monopolise the work.

I was charmed by Clarence Barlow’s 2002 ensemble work Sachets des ciseaux Insatiables (‘bags of insatiable scissors’ or perhaps ‘bags of insatiable cut-ups’). It moved, with strange but evident inevitability, from dense, up-tempo, polyrhythmic activity to a more transparent polyrhythmic texture. This texture, which was characterised by a slit drum tala, segued, somewhat bizarrely, into an arrangement of The Beatles’ ‘Michelle’, in which the trumpet held the melody and the rest of the ensemble provided a rich contrapuntal accompaniment.

The most elegant compositional thinking of the evening came in the form of Tom Johnson’s Septet II (2009) for two flutes, oboe, clarinet, two violins and viola. An exhaustive exercise in permutation, its consistent modus operandi of chords, rest, chords, rest (and so on), was immersing.

Robert Manthey’s Music for Rocks and Clouds (2009) centred itself on a double bass and electric keyboard cantus firmus melody. The surrounding instrumental texture thinned out to reveal the cantus before building back up again, as if describing an inverted arc. The clarity of construction was impressive, but I could find no way to emotionally engage with the work.

Plektó (1993), by Iannis Xenakis, was well-chosen to end the concert. In its bold polyrhythms, heterophony and incisive percussion writing (realised with great panache by percussionist Arnold Marinissen), the work addressed itself directly to the viscera.

Snijders’ programme concept was an effective one. While the curation didn’t or couldn’t demonstrate the effect of geographical relocation on the composers’ work, there was coherence to the programming and an almost indescribable sense of cosmopolitan otherness.

Published on 1 February 2010

Garrett Sholdice is a composer and a director of the record label and music production company Ergodos.

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