Die-hards at the 45th edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival wracked their brains to recall the last time the Ensemble intercontemporain visited the UK’s premier new music festival. It was a fruitless exercise since, somewhat unbelievably, the group had never before savoured the damp, cold November air of West Yorkshire. The Festival’s Artistic Director, Graham McKenzie, should therefore be awarded a gold star for finally convincing EIC to follow in the footsteps of their illustrious founder, Pierre Boulez.

Ensemble intercontemporain
© Brian Slater | hcmf

With their conductor François López-Ferrer (son of the late Jesús López-Cobos), they brought a quartet of powerful new pieces which delighted a good-sized crowd in the Town Hall. Two were by Lisa Streich, a Swedish beacon who is Composer-in-Residence. The others were by Franck Bédrossian and Thomas Simaku, respectively French and British, both established composers of high repute.

Although some of the band’s senior members were absent, under López-Ferrer’s versatile direction the quality of the performances were still shot through with the deep sense of ‘balance’ which typifies EIC’s artistry: the juxtaposition of assurance in virtuosity with the granularity of their feel for the dynamics of colour, light and shade; and the stylishness of their execution underpinning the rapturous sounds that emerge from their ensemble playing. In Simaku’s Soliloquy VII, a highly-polished work for solo-clarinet being given its world premiere by Jérôme Comte, a sequence of precipitous arpeggios were executed with great panache. That was in strong contrast to the velvet sounds conjured out of the various glissandi, trills and tremolandi that gives the piece a distinctive colour palette – a palette enhanced by the resonance of a piano’s sounding-board.

Jérôme Comte
© Brian Slater | hcmf

In Streich’s Himmel, receiving its UK premiere, the band displayed its Gallic sensibilities. The composer deployed a sequence of spectral chords to evoke “a surreal level of normal life” during the Covid pandemic; from the fingers and lips of the ensemble what was heard were glimpses of overtone colours fading in and out of focus. Whilst composing OFELIA, Streich tried to imagine what it might be like to live inside an organ. For the sake of practicality she opted to use a piano, and in place of an actual body she installed home-made motors, to which were attached strips of paper. When in contact with the strings, they were meant to produce ghostly enhancements to the colours emerging from the rest of the ensemble. However, that embellishment was not evident, at least not to my ears – but the colours from the ensemble were of a striking fragility, hovering somewhere near the edge of auditory experience. Perhaps that fragility is what prompted the reference to Shakespeare’s troubled daughter. 

Ensemble intercontemporain
© Brian Slater | hcmf

For me, Bedrossian’s piece La Lieu et la formule – another UK premiere – easily out-faced the other works on the stage. It was a 15-minute blow-out which EIC threw off with great style and grace. One of its memorable moments was the sight and sound of the ensemble reciting a text that was clearly the flavour of lemon drops. Those words were, apparently, from Rimbaud’s Illuminations; however, I am pretty certain that if extracts from the Shipping Forecast were used, the piece would still have packed the punch delivered with such verve by the ensemble revelling in its music-making.

López-Ferrer, also making his hcmf// debut, is a young man of talent and his ease with the repertoire marks him as one to watch; his versatility will win him many friends. As to EIC, can there be any doubt that they will be back? None whatsoever!  

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