The ICE Ensemble truly has become the highlight of the annual Mostly Mozart festival here in New York City. For the final night of their concert series in the Board of Officers’ Room at the Park Avenue Armory, the Ensemble played four works that had been composed or configured specifically for them, from Dai Fujikura’s capricious Minina to Olivier Messiaen’s Chants de terre et de ciel as arranged by Cliff Colnot. The result was a delightful and sparkly evening that showcased the talent, teamwork, and brilliant programming of the Ensemble.

© Armen Elliott
© Armen Elliott
Dai Fujikura, a Japanese composer based in London, wrote his concerto Mina after the birth of his first child: “I wanted to show how rapidly the mood of the music shifts from one mood to another, just as if you were looking at the baby’s face, which can display four expressions in one second.” Minina, the chamber version refashioned for wind quartet and percussion, began with plaintive bass flute notes from Claire Chase as the four others dotted out percussion fragments. This quiet opening – the loudest sound was a cough directed into and resonating through the flute – then tailed off, after which the musicians reached for their wind instruments (except for Nathan Davis on hammered dulcimer) and the music rayed out into a luscious melee of sounds and colors. The flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon eventually reached a rhythmic unison as the hammered dulcimer arpeggiated in the background. Throughout the short piece, the sounds were dazzling, original, and energetically-conveyed.

Even more energetic was John Zorn’s Baudelaires for violin, cello, flutes, clarinets, bassoon, guitar, and harpsichord. Conductor David Fulmer led the expanded ensemble through colors that were denser, darker and louder. Efforts by individuals to “seize the spotlight” quickly dissolved (or evolved) into a mélange of wisps, whips, dives, lunges, slashes, and strokes of sound. The colors became murkier before sharpening into a more careful, less frenzied whirlwind, pierced by occasional high notes and accelerating into a decisive upward finish before the final phrase from the harpsichord. The ending was greeted by wild applause. “That sounded like our culture,” I overheard someone say. It certainly did remind one of the clamoring voices of the Internet, or maybe of a New York City subway car.

© Armen Elliott
© Armen Elliott
In Alvin Lucier’s Chambers, on the other hand, everyone took their turn. The piece instructs musicians to make a “chamber” or “resonant object” sound, take the chamber away, and then bring it back. Mr. Lucier’s groundbreaking I Am Sitting in a Room defined him as a pioneer in spatial music, and this rendition of Chambers was tailored for the intimate space in which we witnessed it. For this performance in the Armory’s Officers Room, the Ensemble fashioned fourteen music boxes, each playing a recording of their own concerts or of field recordings in Greenland. One by one they filed in, carrying their “chamber” up the central aisle through the audience, and set it down somewhere in the front of the room. The musical objects ranged from Phyllis Chen’s custom music-box, which she wound at the front of the room as the others came and went, to a warbling plastic lobster to a Chinese food take-out box that sounded as if birds were chirping inside. Occasionally, the amalgam of twinkling noises was joined by a titter of laughter from the fascinated audience.

Most astonishing of all was the final piece on the program, Messiaen’s Chants de terre et de ciel of 1938, arranged in 2008 by Cliff Colnot for voice, violin, viola, cello, piccolo, flutes, clarinets, piano, and percussion. The playing was decisive and emotive from beginning to end: bright constellations of notes conveying a wide range in dynamic and drama. To avoid unnecessary levels of gushing, I’ll list some adjectives that I jotted down while listening to this performance: thought-provoking, beautiful, strong, intense, stunning. Messiaen’s texts, written himself as a reflection on love and family, were treated with care not only by soprano Ellie Dehn but by all of the performers. During the section “Rainbow of Innocence (for my little Pascal)”, I could hear the “rainbows” that Messiaen must have seen while composing the music. Every word and note sprang alive with the imagery of the text, from “strands of sunshine” and an “alphabet of laughter” to “slanted midnights” followed by Easter morning.