According to International Contemporary Ensemble artistic director Claire Chase, the Board of Officers’ room at the Park Avenue Armory is now their favorite place to perform. It’s not hard to see why: the space is much cozier than the Armory’s cavernous drill hall, with rows of roomy black chairs and lifesize portraits adorning the deep-hued walls. And it was the perfect setting for Sunday evening’s ICE performance, co-presented with Lincoln Center as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival. For this first in their series of three chamber concerts, members of the ensemble played four spiritual and enigmatic works by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Wide-ranging and occasionally long-winded, the progression of pieces showcased Ms Gubaidulina’s probing compositional voice as well as the ICE’s never-failing cooperation and musicality.

International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) © Armen Elliott
International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)
© Armen Elliott

The most evidently religious of the four pieces was the final piece of the program, Meditation on the Bach Chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit”. The shortest work of the evening, the Meditation was also scored for the largest group of instruments: harpsichord, two violins, viola, cello and bass. Throughout ten impassioned minutes, the musicians, conducted by pianist Jacob Greenberg, oscillated between the unhurried harpsichord chorale and the furious upside-down bowing of the bass and alternated long, soupy phrases with delicate, supernatural trills. The plunge into chaotic, whirling sounds was eventually transfigured into a startling, stunning apotheosis.

The evening began, though, with two longer works: the sprawling String Trio and the intriguing Sotto Voce for viola, bass and two guitars. During the former, the musicians transitioned quickly from sharp up-bows and shards of harmony into a vibrating, wrenching section in which they seemed to drag each other along, sliding from tone to tone before a sudden release. The ascetic, pointillistic second movement ended in a definitive shriek from the viola after the conversation between violin and cello – sparse and sprinkled with silences. The final movement saw the three instruments wending and tangling themselves among each other before the ultimate low declaration from the cello.

Sotto Voce, on the other hand, featured not so many declarations or tangled voices as much as two distinct sides of a conversation – bowed string instruments matched with plucked string instruments. The two guitars were distorted, strummed, and used as sounding boards by fingernails spookily sliding and resonating across the strings. They grumbled, whimpered, and sneaked notes in via quickly-collapsing chords, all while the viola and bass were tearing their way through more “traditional” yet virtuosic sections. Once the strings had screeched and whinnied their way to a cut-off, the haunting guitar sounds continued. Fingers on the strings evoked the sensation of muffled conversations taking place outside a heavy door, joined by the occasional high-pitched pluck. The unconventional layers of textures and timbres created by this instrument combination culminated in one of the most impressive junctures of the evening.

But most striking of all was Quasi Hoquetus, composed in 1984/85 for viola, bassoon and piano. The interaction between musicians Kyle Armbrust, Rebekah Heller and Phyllis Chen was even more fluid and energetic than I’ve come to expect from the various ICE configurations. Here, the thoughtful, pretty melodies on the piano were contrasted with eccentricities on the other two instruments – for which Ms Gubaidulina has a propensity – highlighting their possibilities as solo instruments. The procession of piano chords into a two-part chorale was interspersed with dancing and skipping bassoon and viola phrases. The broader tempi that followed were measured by bellowing rumbles from the piano, which cut off only after the final lift from the bassoon.

The only drawback to the otherwise enjoyable evening was its length: the concert supposedly running 70 minutes ended up lasting over 100, with no intermission. I could hardly blame the little girl next to me for squirming in her big black chair.