As the current holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair, Jörg Widmann is a constant presence around Carnegie Hall this season. Several programs are showcasing his multi-faceted talent, not only as composer for a large spectrum of interpretive forces, but also as clarinetist, conductor, and, not in the least, insightful lecturer. A night after giving a talk entitled “On Dissonance and Beauty”, Widmann appeared in the Zankel Hall, joining the musicians of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble of which he is Principal Conductor and Artistic Partner.

Jörg Widmann and the Irish Chamber Orchestra © Stephanie Berger
Jörg Widmann and the Irish Chamber Orchestra
© Stephanie Berger

The initial three works – by Mendelssohn, Mozart and Widmann himself – were more interconnected than it appeared at first glance. All illustrated their composers’ deep interest for the music of the past, and, in particular, their preoccupation with the art of counterpoint. The ambitiousness of their goals was quite different though: the little fugue in the last movement of Mendelssohn's String Symphony no. 8 in D major is a youthful attempt to improve his compositional technique, while Mozart’s four-voiced fugue is a demonstration of skill with stretto and inverted imitations of the subject, and Widmann’s Versuch über die Fuge is no less than a bid to “deconstruct” the process of writing a fugue.

With its slow opening hinting at the “Dissonance” Quartet and an overall structure reminiscent of the “Jupiter” Symphony, Mendelssohn’s string symphony is a clear tribute to Mozart’s genius, but it’s also an expression of the teenage composer’s own voice. The Adagio’s scoring – with absent violins and divided violas – was pleasantly surprising while the brilliant coda that concludes the work sounded marvelous. Overall, as rendered by the ICO under Widmann’s precise baton, the music sounded fresh and full of energy.

Jörg Widmann and the Irish Chamber Orchestra © Stephanie Berger
Jörg Widmann and the Irish Chamber Orchestra
© Stephanie Berger

Widmann’s Versuch is also haunted to some degree by Mozart’s ghost, specifically by the C minor Fugue that, prefaced by a profound and somber Adagio, followed it on Tuesday night’s performance. Originally conceived as his Fifth String Quartet and presented here in arrangement for soprano, oboe (Daniel Bates) and string orchestra, Versuch über die Fuge sounded less than an attempt to solve a mathematical puzzle, with moves that bring you closer or farther from the desired solution, but as a fully-fledged architectural structure whose façade is traversed by clouds that hide sometimes essential details. The impressive soloist was soprano Claron McFadden whose pellucid and precise voice articulating “Vanitas vanitatum” drew attention from the very first bars. Her enunciation of the Ecclesiastes verses – that may refer, in fact, to the “futile vanity” of attempting to come up with a new fugue – tremendously contributed to the structural and sonic richness of the music. Widmann expertly underlined both witty little details – the strings whip their bows in the air in canon – and the overall arc of the score with its superb interplay between soprano and instrumentalists.

Six strings (two violins, a viola and three cellos) played without maestro Widmann’s involvement his quasi-minimalist 180 Beats Per Minute, a youthful score, less fascinating for its six-voices canon than for its infectious joie de vivre.

Arguably the most familiar of the evening’s works, Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B flat major, was presented here in an arrangement for string orchestra, thus emphasizing its closeness to a true concerto. Widmann relied more on leader Katherine Hunka, focusing on his clarinet playing and charming the listeners not only with his devilish technique and tremendous dynamic range, but also with humor (Minuetto) and the ability to bring an almost vocal quality to the melodies in the Fantasia: Adagio.

As an encore, the ICO instrumentalists came up with an orchestral rendition of a traditional Irish tune. A rather eclectic program indeed.

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