The final countdown has begun. After seven long years of camping out both on the city’s edge and underground at its heart, the new Music Palace in Utrecht will be opened on midsummer’s eve this year – including a hall for chamber music that seats 500 as opposed to the 250 in attendance at last evening’s performance by Asko|Schönberg led by Etienne Siebens. The program, “A la Francaise” (on the program sheet it was endowed with more personality: “French Illusionists”), was yesterday’s problem. Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Gérard Grisey did attract a sell-out in this “New Classics” series, but the match between repertoire and musicians was ill-conceived and resulted in disappointment.

Immediately, in the opening of Ravel’s precious Le Tombeau de Couperin, there were simply too few strings to carry the warmth and richness of the score. And the six strings participating did not embody the harmonic structure: they individually failed to find their place in each chord, all going their own merry way in terms of intonation, color and timing. We have orchestral abundance in our memories of this wonderful piece, and we should perhaps be open to compromise in that respect, but to do so takes string players heavily versed and experienced in Ravel’s point of departure, late-Romantic tonality.

Following this first disappointment, perhaps memory again poisoned the performance of Hans Zender’s transcription of Debussy Préludes; we are all certainly spoiled by the illusions that solo pianists magically produce from finely tuned concert grands. There was humor here, some good timing, but too many things were simply askew; it was never, ever relaxed, flowing or translucent. Les collines d’Anacapri did afford a glimpse of what these musicians are capable of, but by that time it was too little, too late. The final prelude suffered intonation problems yet again, this time in the woodwinds, who were out of balance with the (too) soft strings. In this delicate French repertoire, so fresh and new in its day, so beloved ever since, split-second changes in harmonic hierarchy need to be spot-on to work. Thankfully, a pianist does not have to tune each note, but that does imply that Debussy’s Préludes will not survive sloppy tuning when transcribed. Every note needs to bullseye its tonal target.

Singing Stéphane Mallarmé is a tough job: phonetics complicate the literal significance of his work on paper, let alone when sung. Soprano Katrien Baerts has little use for consonants as a signer, gliding from vowel to vowel with a sweet timbre, but in doing so taking the blood out of both text and music, from a first “Mon âme” to the very last “ténèbres”, words that in their contexts should have been wrenching as opposed to business-like, cold even. Baert’s texts were completely incomprehensible and resulted in a performance that was static and void of emotion.

Adding Gérard Grisey’s 1975 Partiels’ to the program could have theoretically put things to right, were it not that the performance of the clearly complex score was strained. Siebens should have been given a coach’s whistle: he counted, signaled, beat time, worked hard. Aside from some dated theatrical humor in its final bars, the musical point of all the effort was not at all convincing.

A sell-out concert is good news for Asko|Schönberg, but at what price? For these pioneers of new music since 1965, joining ranks with the Schoenberg Ensemble in 2009 (a well-planned play in times of need), this is clearly not their repertoire: the entire program sounded meek and weak. Every stray bit of intonation was painfully obvious. Dare I say, I yearned to hear orchestral musicians, better versed perhaps in string projection due to the cozy warmth of
their extended ranks?

Exceptions underlined the rule: clarinetists Pierre Woudenberg and David Kweksilber were inspired in each and every note, too few to affect the evening. Oboist Marieke Schut has a certain presence but balance was lost as all her decorative notes in both Ravel and Debussy burst through the strings. Etienne Siebens is an elegant conductor and held these singular personalities together, but it was clearly beyond his control to keep intonation on track in renowned impressionist riches.

Granted, Asko|Schönberg musicians have been respected pioneers for more than a generation. And granted too, these are times of crisis for such large ensembles, attempting to maintain their ideals while searching for a new role as well as additions to their flock. Sadly, yesterday was a disappointment from the get-go, a repertoire mismatch (for both ensemble and soprano) in misguided programming.