It has been two years since the Boston based sinfonietta ensemble, Sound Icon, made its debut. Since then the ensemble has garnered a reputation both for challenging the status quo and blurring the boundaries between the intimacy of the chamber and the formality of the concert hall. On Saturday night, in the crisp and vibrant CFA Concert Hall at Boston University, the group’s Tribute to Elliot Carter continued this exciting tradition before an audience full of Boston’s contemporary music cognoscenti.
The evening began with Elliott Carter’s ASKO Concerto from 2000. As Carter described it, the piece is “…a kind of concerto grosso where 16 players are divided into smaller units that play fleet, whimsical phrases framed by recurring ensemble ritornellos.” These smaller units, marked by differing ensemble groups, make the piece an exciting extended essay in which counterpoint complements timbre and bears witness to Carter’s often unnoticed genius for instrumentation. The double bass bickered with the clarinet. The violin chaperoned the trumpet. Indeed, the xylophone haunted the upper register harp and piccolo. Conductor Jeffrey Means folded in all of these wonderful colors comfortably between vigorous presentations of the tutti ritornello.
If, for Carter’s piece, the audience was eavesdropping on a musical dialogue among the members of the ensemble, then in the next piece, John Aylward’s Flight out of Mind, the music and players addressed the audience directly. The first movement’s surface-level motives—doppleresque “musical gestures that evoke sensations of flight,” —belied the subtlety of the underlying counterpoint. It was this counterpoint that gracefully drove the movement from an opening with detailed, busy polyphony to a homorhythmic texture over a drone at the electrifying end. This kind of compositional eloquence comes only from a combination of discipline and intuitive formal mastery. After a lighter and ethereal central movement, the finale presented a series of thundering crescendos, the last of which was poetically marked by the gradual decay of an isolated residual tone. In all, the symphonic scale of the piece just seemed to bulge at the restraints that the chamber genre placed upon it.
The third work, Stefano Gervasoni’s Epicadenza, was for double trio (string and wind), cimbalom (a concert hammered dulcimer) and percussion on “non-European instruments” featuring percussionist Mike Williams. While the delicacy of Gervasoni’s piece provided a nice foil to Aylward’s symphonic muscle, for this reviewer, it lacked organizational interest. Conceived as a fragment, composed “as if it was the end of a piece whose development would only be imagined,” the piece seemed to lack any sign of structural organization. As a formal design, the fragment emerged in the 19th-century as a criticism of the tyranny of classical form. In the 21st-century, the tyranny of formal convention is just not a concern. However, the successful aspect of the work resided in its blending; the string and wind trios at times augmented and punctuated the percussive intensity and at others provided a plodding accompaniment to William’s obbligato line and the cimbalom’s counter line. Indeed, William’s exacting rhythmic precision and striking dynamic range gave this demanding score an authoritative reading.
In the last work, Anthony Cheung’s Centripedalocity, one could detect a remote wave of Schuller’s third stream. The work is collage of distilled influence (Ravel, Debussy and Monk) from which Cheung’s own voice emerges quite clearly. The most interesting moments included the second section’s restrained microtonality and the third movement’s incessant repetition. It provided an excellent close to a fascinating evening.
Several ensemble members deserve special mention. Christopher Watford’s bassoon provided a clear consistent tone throughout all registers in Carter’s concerto. Franziska Huhn, for whom the evening was a marathon, reached beyond the harp’s obligatory lush arppegiations to contribute a real sense of line and musicality.
A final note. While the performance was top notch, there were troubling problems with ancillary aspects of the production. After intermission, the lights were left on. Normally this would provide no real difficulties (it made it easier to read the program notes) but about halfway through Gervasoni’s piece a row of lights began to flash on and off randomly—distracting nearly half of the audience. Further, the program notes were terribly deficient. Because the separate movements were not listed, the audience committed the classic faux pas and applauded after the first movement of Aylward’s three movement piece. Most disturbing, however, was the absence of a listing of the instruments that each member of the ensemble played. The saxophonist [Philipp Stäudlin] and cimbalomist [Nick Tolle] also deserve mention, but I simply cannot find their names anywhere.