Composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann is spending a busy season in New York as Carnegie Hall's 2019-2020 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer, one highlight certainly being his first meeting with the International Contemporary Ensemble (the city's go-to for contemporary composer portraits). ICE played five of Widmann's works (the composer conducting and playing one solo piece) in Carnegie's basement level Zankel Hall – a smaller theater than the grand room but with better acoustics save for the soft rumbling of the nearby subway (Widmann seemed to hold pauses until trains passed on two occasions, as if out of deference to the other sounds that inhabit the room).

Jörg Widmann
© Richard Termine

The first piece on the program was the 2010 octet Liebeslied and indeed it seemed Widmann was turning the ensemble on: a sustained note from the reeds was followed by a pluck from the strings and then, like the flipping of a switch, we were in the midst of tonal intensity, accentuated by crashing gongs. Within minutes, it was a clear demonstration of the sudden mood swings at which Widmann (in his music, at least) is so adept. Quick tension and release and contrasting tempos created a fraught beauty. If much of contemporary composition lacks emotion, this seemed almost to have too much of it.

The 2006 Quintet for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon and Piano, divided into 18 fleeting sections, represented another immersion; Widmann can create suspense in a heartbeat, and in this case released it with a long and audible exhalation across the ensemble then a pregnant pause before launching into an odd, darkly playful theme. The piece is a tribute to Mozart's Quintet for piano and winds (K.452) but ups the emotive ante, both the somber and the humor, including percussive slaps to the instruments and a monstrously “out of tune” march.

Even in fragments and miniatures, it was the ensemble pieces that were most satisfying, allowing Widmann not to build arguments but define subjects by contrast. A beautifully played celesta section brought the quintet to a close with an isolated, ascending line, an unexpected, undiluted expression of hope, even grace.

Jörg Widmann conducts the ICE
© Richard Termine

The solo pieces were more virtuosic and a bit more clever. The 2005 Air for French horn was played by David Byrd-Marrow, positioned next to the open piano to create a resonance around knotty lines reminiscent of Anthony Braxton's saxophone. Violinist Josh Modney played the 2001 Etude no. 2, which called on him to sing along from the first note, requiring some level of certainty of pitch, although the piece seemed to waver about in sustained dissonances and ghostly tritones before settling into what seemed a broken sonata with some parts lost.

Widmann played the third solo piece of the evening himself, Three Shadow Dances, and his playing was maybe even more exciting than his writing – although as he was playing his own music it's a fictive line. He delivered the three-movement (fast, slow, fast) sonata with a quick-wit and remarkable tonal control, moving from three music-stand stations spanning the stage.

The evening ended with Freie Stücke for large ensemble, beginning in a whisper from the flutes, then a murmur from the low strings and violins passing like a breeze. A woodblock strike and contrabass glissando put the ensemble in motion, although only for a moment. Like the Quintet, it was built in short, continuous movements (ten in this case) and a flair for suspense. Here it dissolved into resolution, seemingly without change. The question became its own answer, the real mystery being just what the mystery was. It was a wonderful bit of sleight of hand, but it was more than that. Widmann's music seems a succumbing to nonsense, whether playful or existential. It's remarkably human with the sweat wiped away. Somehow, he makes it seem like he didn't have to try.