Thursday, February 21, 2013

The International Contemporary Ensemble Enthralls Denver

The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) recently presented a superbly performed concert of diverse, effective new music to an enthusiastic Denver audience. It was easily one of the finest new music concerts I've heard in the Denver-Boulder region over the last 40 years.

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L to R: Claire Chase, Jacob Greenberg, Michael Nicolas
The concert opened with Toru Takemitsu's delicate, evocative, relaxing (one might say "mellow") Rain Spell, intended, the composer writes, "to realize the magical image and the gradation in coloration of the rain in a small-scale ensemble." This was followed by Halcyon for clarinet and string trio, a recent (2011) work from another Japanese composer, Dai Fujikura, who has been championed by ICE. Fujikura is clearly a distinctive voice, and the topnotch performance was highlighted by the refined, elegant playing of clarinetist Joshua Rubin.

Though Elliott Carter is not always my cup of tea, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy his short, attractive Bariolage (1992) for harp. Of course, having the idiomatically written work receive a virtuoso performance by Bridget Kibbey certainly helped.

Another virtuoso, the ICE captain and excellent flutist Claire Chase, was featured in Kaija Saariaho's Terrestre (2002), a resetting of the second movement of her Aile du songe flute concerto. It's an attractive piece, wherein the flutist adds various vocalizations to her instrumental sounds.

Magnus Lindberg's Steamboat Bill, Jr. was indeed inspired by the eponymous, wonderful Buster Keaton film. The piece has lots of activity and was beautifully played, but wasn't particularly compelling to me. I'm more a fan of his big orchestral works.

The prodigious chameleon John Zorn composed his string trio Walpurgisnacht initially based on Webern's string trio. Here, the edgy, experimental Zorn uses almost completely conventional, straightforward techniques, and the work could be viewed as a second cousin, twice removed, of Webern. I liked it.

The concert concluded with Crumb's classic Vox Balaenae. The mask-less, sensitive performance included playing inside-the-piano by Jacob Greenberg, who altered the string sounds by applying Mr. Crumb's very own shot-glass.

It's not every day one of the country's top new music ensembles, headed by a MacArthur "Genius" grant recipient, appears in this area, and the audience responded with a standing ovation. Such events in the Mile-High city are rare and most welcome. The concert, held in the 1,000-seat Newman Center, was sold out. Major kudos to the Friends of Chamber Music for programming ICE. One hopes for more.