Scores Without Borders

Ensemble for Contemporary Music (ECM)

At UCSB’s Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall, Thursday, March 16.

The tingly, mind-massaging sense of discovery one gets at concerts by UCSB’s ECM is a double-edged sensation. On the plus side, ECM, bravely and smartly led by director Jeremy Haladyna, clearly fills a void. On the other hand, the rarity of such contemporary music here — and its too-small audiences — imply conservatism and fear of new music in a region otherwise rich in musical options.

These, of course, are just subsonic reflections: What matters most is the music, and there was plenty worth admiring and pondering at ECM’s concert last Thursday. Each year, the trick with ECM is to play up the strengths of resident student musicians, allowing for added variety of repertoire and contexts.

Last week’s concert, for instance, opened with Kelli Johennesen’s performance of the solo horn piece “Interstellar Call,” opening Olivier Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars (heard in its full splendor at the Ojai Festival a few years back). Student composer Ryan Andersen’s tonally (and microtonally) challenging My Story opens with musicians (soprano Agatha Carubia, flutist Shivhan Dohse, cellist Devin Burke, and pianist David Shere) mock performing, in silence. This moment of Zen was not a prank, but a fitting gesture for a setting of Carly Sachs’s fragmented, poetic text, about the confusion and disembodiment of a rape.

Faculty composer Kurt Rohde’s affecting Six Character Piece for Viola and Piano gives deserved expressive equal time to the “lowly” viola, played with focused skill by Sarah Carsman, alongside pianists Humberto Almeida and Haladyna. For the token “accessible” piece on the program, flutist Dohse charismatically performed Ian Clarke’s Zoom Tube, leaning too close to the riff-based realm of Ian Anderson and Herbie Mann for comfort.

This evening’s ensemble piece was 1978’s Amarantos (Greek for “unfading”) by British composer — and onetime UCSB student — John Casken. Casken ingeniously manipulates time and tonality, ending its melodic kaleidoscope on a note of shimmering mystery.

The best came last: Acclaimed British composer Judith Weir’s three-movement 1980 piece, Several Concertos, cleverly showcases the instrumentation of cello, piano, and flute/piccolo (Hilary Clark, Haladyna, and Emily Noble, respectively), with a shifting soloist spotlight. In the cello “concerto,” piano and flute negotiate spidery unison lines while the cello slips in and out of their musical logic. The piano movement is wittily anti-virtuosic, full of smeary sweeps and banged-out clusters (a k a fistfuls of notes) rather than technical precision, and the final, teasingly brief piccolo “concerto” has an air of tremulous suspension.

Overall, the musical landscape provoked and inspired, and the status quo was duly ravaged. Bring it on. Next up: ECM performs at LLCH on April 19.

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