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The latest installment of the New World Symphony’s adventurous Sounds of the Times series was dubbed “A Modernist Explosion.” Composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher led a sampling of European modernism from the 1990′s and the present decade series Saturday night at New World Center.
Pintscher told the audience that, when he put the program together around two years ago, he intended to open with Pierre Boulez’s explosante-fixe (“exploding-fixed”) in celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday. Boulez died last month so the performance became, instead, a memoriam.
Boulez was a great conductor, controversial polemicist and theorist and highly influential teacher. As a composer, however, his legacy is questionable. Like many of his compositions, explosante-fixe is based on mathematical and intellectual constructs developed at IRCAM, the institute Boulez founded in Paris for the study and development of electronic musical experimentation. Starting in 1971, Boulez turned out various permutations of the score with different instrumentations before settling on a final 1993 version for flute with live electronics, two additional flutes and chamber ensemble.
The amplified flute opens with busy figurations while a veritable Tower of Babel of sound comes from the other two flute players and ensemble. There is some contrasting lyrical material but that does not last for long. Brief electronic interludes between movements provide the only respite from the ceaseless high pitched sound of the three amplified flutes which becomes grating on the ears, over its seemingly endless 36-minute duration. While some of his students and colleagues at the famous Darmstadt summer music institute were able to utilize his theories to create meaningful music, Boulez’s works remain a trial for the listener.
Flutist Masha Popova was a fearless soloist, conquering the triple-tongued writing and extended techniques of Boulez’s electronic echoes with staunch musicianship and verve. Her colleagues Kelly Zimba and Allison Emerick were no less impressive and Pintscher managed to coordinate the fiercely loud ensemble writing.
There was more than just a switch in gears as the speakers were removed and the entire large ensemble came on stage for Unsuk Chin’s Clarinet Concerto. This terrific work comes from an entirely different musical realm. A pupil of György Ligeti, the South Korean born, Berlin-based composer was the winner of the coveted Grawemeyer Award in 2004.
Opening with a wail in which the solo clarinet produces several pitches simultaneously against tremolos and glissandos in the strings, the score exploits the limits of the instrument’s upper and lower extremes. Moments of bird-like song, suggesting Messiaen, lead to an eerie, disturbing slow movement. In the finale, the soloist catches a swinging groove with the New Age big band brass and percussion capturing the jazzy beat. Chin’s 2014 work is original, resolutely modernist, challenging for performers and audience alike, yet totally accessible and enjoyable.
Jerôme Comte, a member of Paris’ Ensemble Intercontemporain (founded by Boulez and now led by Pintscher), tore through Chin’s seemingly impossible clarinet writing as if he was born to play it. His instrumental facility was stunning. In the last movement, Cômte was constantly bending, almost dancing, to the vibrant rhythmic pulse. Pintscher brought clarity and transparency to the rattling orchestral score. Chin was present to share in the standing ovation for this modern day showpiece.
Pintscher’s own Five Pieces for Orchestra (1997) might be termed “Schoenberg for the 21st century” in the best sense. Like Schoenberg’s own Five Pieces of 1909, the score is atonal, yet highly emotive and replete with the most minute and elegantly crafted instrumental details. The work abounds in soft moments with extended solos for harp and English horn, the mood dark and terse.
Pintscher was a fine advocate for his own work. His only miscalculation was not holding the reins on some of the full-blast climaxes, which were ear shattering in the intimate acoustic of New World Center. In a difficult program that many orchestras would not even dare attempt, the New World musicians consistently played with brilliance, precision and boundless enthusiasm.
The New World Symphony’s Sounds of the Times series continues 7:30 p.m. March 26 with Stefan Asbury conducting the U.S. premiere of Helen Grime’s A Cold Spring, Sir Michael Tippett’s Symphony No. 4 and Thomas Adès Violin Concerto with soloist Anthony Marwood. nws.edu; 305-673-3331.