International Contemporary Ensemble and Matthias Pintscher at Mostly Mozart

Tonight I attended a concert in Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall by the International Contemporary Ensemble with guest conductor Matthias Pintscher, the second of two programs presented by this extraordinary chamber ensemble as part of this year's Mostly Mozart Festival.  (The previous concert was a collaboration with conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.)

One would not necessarily associate a group called International Contemporary Ensemble with Mozart's music, but it turned out to be a match made in heaven.  They began with an arrangement by composer Salvatore Sciarrino of the Adagio for Glass Harmonica that Mozart wrote toward the end of his life after hearing a performance on that unusual instrument by a blind woman virtuosa.  Sciarrino used two violins, flute, and muted trumpet, and scored the last note of each sequence to be played by a musician running his fingers around the rim of an appropriately filled water glass – which provoked some amusement from the audience, but the arrangement seemed like an effective way to present Mozart's music in a concert hall.  With such a small number of players, this piece was presented as chamber music without the conductor.

Matthias Pintscher directed the rest of the program.  Two years ago I became first acquainted with his music when he was commissioned by the NY Philharmonic to write something for their contemporary series, and I was sufficiently intrigued to begin exploring recordings.  His work is worth getting to know, although it is not always easy to figure out on first hearing, as his focus is more on instrumental colors and textures than on development of melodies in a traditional sense.  So it proved this evening in his Occultation, a movement from a larger work for solo trumpet, solo horn and chamber ensemble, a work that was premiered in full by this ensemble in a Miller Theatre composer concert in 2010.  Soloists Gareth Flowers and David Byrd-Marrow did the honors, and the short movement (about ten minutes) was interesting at my first hearing, but I would want to hear it again before saying much of anything.

This was my first experience hearing Pintscher direct other peoples' music, and he proved an inspiring conductor in Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 and the concluding work on the program, the Gran Partita, K. 361, by Mozart.  Hearing these two works in succession provided an interesting contrast, as they both find inventive uses of a moderate-sized chamber ensemble.  The Schoenberg piece poses great challenges in coordination, instrumental balance, and handling numerous tempo changes, and Pintscher led a performance that mastered all of these elements.  Not surprising, after all, for this ensemble specializes in technically challenging modern music.  (But one must remember that the Schoenberg piece, despite its complexities, is more than a century old!)

The biggest revelation for me was the Mozart, however.  This is, on the one hand, a serenade for wind instruments with a string bass providing the sonic foundation, and thus one would think a lighter sort of piece, but tradition has dealt it the reputation of a big, sometime profound work, with famous recordings conducted by Furtwangler and Klemperer.  In the film Amadeus, the adagio movement is used to introduce the idea of Mozart being a mere vessel through whom God speaks, and this is achieved with a slow tempo, giving the beginning of the movement a mystic sort of quality.  None of this for Pintscher and ICM — they treated it as a serenade, and the adagio, light as air, flowed by in what seemed record time, and was none the worse for that.  The entire seven-movement piece conveyed humor, light-heartedness, bigness of sound where appropriate but a true chamber quality much of the time, and a final rondo that really flew to the conclusion.  The enthusiastic ovation at the end was well-earned.

I hope we get to hear more of Pintscher's music from our resident and visiting orchestras in New York, and I hope we get to experience more Pintscher's podium work as well.  Hint, hint, hint….

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