Multi-Polar Energies

Ensemble for Contemporary Music

At Lotte Lehmann Hall, Tuesday, June 6.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

In the finale of the exciting, cerebral, and ever-underrated concert series from Ensemble for Contemporary Music, geographical poetics and dynamic extremes made for a happy convergence. Mayan references blended with stellar solo turns on viola and cello, and visiting composer-in-residence Ursula Mamlok, German-born and long N.Y.C.-based, offered compact bursts of contemporary chamber music wisdom.

Things started out gently, with the tart ripples of Katherine Hoover’s “Canyon Echoes,” for flute and guitar; Shivhan Dohse and Sean Taylor attended beautifully to the task. Based on an Apache folktale, the work glides from moments of tangy dissonance to impressionistic colors.

Cellist Virginia Kron gave her considerable all to the premiere of Scott Perry’s solo work “Eviscerations,” a five-movement exploration demanding scratchy tones, microtonal carousing, and a final stark lyricism. A nicely rugged and ritualistic quality emerges from the writing, movingly realized through Kron’s focused and uncompromising playing. The cello, after all, can be a smooth and singing voice, but also a garrulous ruffian and abstraction-maker. The latter pole rules here.

Speaking of poles, Mamlok’s impressive 1995 work “Polarities” is fueled by that notion, putting a quartet of piano, flute, violin, and cello (David Shere, Emily Noble, David Ruest, and Devin Burke) through varied paces. Deceptively clean in structure, its three movements are alternately fast and fragmented, slow and languid, and, finally, a mercurial mixture thereof, as energy zones oscillate in tempo and harmonic tension.

From the pre-Colombian corner came the latest in the ambitious “Mayan Cycle” of composer Jeremy Haladyna (also ECM’s director), this time involving a busy labyrinth for an odd ensemble, with bassoon (Andrew Radford), amplified harpsichord (Haladyna), vibraphone (Matthew Talmage), baritone saxophone (James Wilcox), and expanded drum kit (Tim Beutler). The score veers into a space relative to jazz and maybe Zappa, with serpentine lines over a ticking — though not quite swinging — pulse.

Violist Leah Lucas was, in some way, the evening’s protagonist performer. She closed the concert in the electro-acoustic embrace and clever sonic maze of Beutler’s “The Pursuit of Truth,” for solo viola and a tape chock full of samples. Better yet, Lucas nailed the concert’s most introspective piece, Mamlok’s 1983 solo work “From My Garden.” Blending arco and pizzicato, sometimes simultaneously, and framed by an opening and closing in a darkened house, the work is a small masterpiece of dark, lovely, reflective writing, somewhere between the composer’s serial and neo-classical tendencies. In short, it was a concert suggesting that new music is alive, well, and vibrant with sometimes contrary, yet peacefully coexistent ideals.

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