Contemporary sonorities resound in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, International New York Times, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 23.02.2014

Pierre Boulez’s brainchild from 1976, the renowned Ensemble Intercontemporain, is on the road again with a combination program of standards and some striking new sounds from the world of new music. Audiences are responding with rapture.

Young French composer Yves Chauris took a bow in Bordeaux Saturday night (Feb. 22) after his well-received Un Minimum de Monde Visible, a piece crammed with fresh ideas and original orchestral sonorities. It was the event of the evening.

This dominantly percussive composition suggests everything from metallic collisions to flowing, dripping liquids to the ethereal sounds of Japanese string instruments. Techniques include a muted piano passage, steel drums and the full panoply of an expanded percussion section. Wisps of melody came and went. I heard Messiaen echoes but I may have been dreaming.

Chauris conceived the piece, he explained in program notes, just three years ago while in residence for six months at the French-financed Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto, Japan. The premiere was held just a month ago at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under the direction of Pablo Heras-Casado to whom it is dedicated.  It has also been performed in Paris and Antwerp. Heras-Casado was supposed to have conducted this performance but due to illness was replaced by the charismatic Italian Tito Ceccherini, a rising talent with wide experience across Europe and Japan.

Another high-impact selection on the program was Gyorgy Ligeti’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a rhythmically complex composition held together with support from the piano, played by Ensemble veteran Hideki Nagano. Long passages of a droning double bass line were interrupted by bursts from the strings, woodwinds and brass. Ligeti’s notes said a good performance would “take off like an airplane”. Saturday night was a good performance. 

Ligeti also added that the percussion part was more complex than usual, requiring either two or three players. Two “wind instruments” were added to the section, a chromatic harmonica and a slide whistle. The combinations met the criteria explained in his notes: “Abolish the concept of time, suspend it and confine it to the present, such is my supreme design as a composer.”

Ceccherini and Nagano took five curtain calls from an enthusiastic Bordeaux audience. 

The evening ended with the monumental Chamber Symphony for 15 Instruments, Opus 9 by Arnold Schoenberg. Under Ceccherini’s athletic conducting (both feet left the ground at least twice), this emblematic single-movement piece from Schoenberg’s first period is best known for its fresh sonorities, driving rhythms and recurrent dark melodic lines.  The dense writing slides from exposition to scherzo to development, adagio and finale in just 20 frenetic minutes. The chamber players of the Ensemble Contemporain somehow took on the ampleur of a full orchestra. 

 

Odd as it seems today, the second performance of this piece, in Vienna in 1913, caused a riot equal to that of sparked by Stravinsky the same year in Paris with his Rite of Spring.  The Schoenberg Chamber Symphony was the centerpiece of a program that included compositions by both Webern and Berg. The audience was flummoxed, rioted, and the pandemonium forced the concert to be cut short. The organizer was taken to court after a tussle with composer Oscar Straus.

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