The current state of contemporary classical composition is a bit muddled. There are a wide variety of styles and approaches out there, and no consensus on where the cutting edge is to be found. Ensembles dedicated to performing new music must find a way to make sense of it all. Approaches include staking out a particular aesthetic position, covering as wide a range of styles as possible, or building concerts around themes or ideas.
The polished young Ensemble Amorpha built their concert last Sunday, 6 October at Kings Place around the theme of contemporary Swiss music. But it also seemed, intentionally or not, to be making an aesthetic claim for what I’ll call “lyrical modernism”, a language that retains modernism’s dissonances and expressive gestures, but in a more subdued, gentler fashion.
Philippe Kocher’s Linked Lines, Not Straight (a world première) opened the show with descending piano clusters, a percussionist who spent most of her time inside the piano (plucking, strumming and hitting its strings with mallets), and a cellist and clarinettist on either side of the back of the hall. The spatial separation of the ensemble created an enveloping sense of surround sound, with motivic ideas bouncing around the space as they passed from instrument to instrument.
The piece’s harmonic world was basically dissonant, though not jarringly so. Rhythms were fluid and not particularly metrical, though a background pulse was certainly evident. The music was quite coloristic and gestural, though not in an overly aggressive way. A similar basic language characterized three of the other works on the program: Beat Furrer’s Aer (clarinet, cello, and piano), Heinz Holliger’s Chaconne (solo cello), and Klaus Huber’s oddly brief Rauhe Pinselspitze (cello and percussion).
The ensemble gave clear and committed performances. Cellist Louise McMonagle’s playing was especially vivid, with its powerful combination of precision and intensity. She impressively performed Holliger’s Chaconne from memory, seamlessly navigating all of its technical challenges and extended techniques.
Standing out from the other pieces was Nadir Vassena’s delightful 11 fragile games of the night, for solo recorder. I had never before given very much thought to the idea of a recorder playing contemporary music, but in the able hands of Roselyn Maynard it proved to be an ideal vehicle. The recorder’s simple construction, with no reeds or keys, make it able to execute pitch bends, microtones, numerous gradations of vibrato, overblown notes, and other effects with much more flexibility and naturalness than other woodwinds can. Vassena’s work made lovely use of this wide palette of colors in a series of brief and evocative vignettes reflecting on the night-time. It was a revelation that made me eager to hear more composers try their hand at writing for this instrument.
The concert closed un-Swissly with the première of Amorpha director Luke Styles’ Ripples of Como, for clarinet and string quartet. The moody, expressively dissonant and undulating first movement evoked something of early Schoenberg, as well as some of the autumnal quality of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. The second movement, for clarinet alone, was a showpiece for clarinetist Timothy Orpen’s impressive technique. The work closed with an energetic third movement, alternately playful and aggressive. The language of this work was similar in many ways to the Swiss pieces on the program, though it was perhaps a touch more Romantic. Though generally well paced and logically constructed, it also felt a bit lopsided structurally, with the lighter second and third movements unable to balance out the weighty first movement.
This is my first time hearing Ensemble Amorpha, so I don’t know if the general aesthetic presented on this concert is particularly characteristic or not. They certainly seemed at home in it, performing all of the works with technical facility and full commitment. It left me curious to hear their prodigious technical chops put to work in music that covers a broader range of styles.
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