07 November 2010

Ensemble Zellig

This afternoon I went to Ensemble Zellig’s west coast debut over at Hertz Hall in Berkeley. They are a French chamber ensemble specializing in new music (the oldest piece they played this afternoon was from 1993 and most were brand-spanking new). The group was founded in 1999 by two performers (Silvia Lenzi and Etienne Lamaison) and two composers (Thierry Pecou and Gualtiero Dazzi), and describes itself as “flexibly sized” and “fully at ease traveling through time and musical styles” – hence the eponymous use of Woody Allen’s Zelig, though the extra “l” is unexplained.

Etienne Lamaison was there, playing clarinet and bass clarinet, and so was Silvia Lenzi on cello. They were joined by Anne-Cecile Cuniot on flute and alto flute and Jonas Vitaud on piano. All were stylishly attired in black and red (of a deep brick shade). Cuniot’s dress had a chic rising-sun motif, which only added to the Japanese impression of the first number, Philippe Hersant’s Five Miniatures (1995), a solo piece for alto flute (but then solo flute music in its plangent and reedy way always reminds me of the artier Japanese films). When she left the stage the other three came out for the second piece, Don Freund’s Crunch Time (2010), which formed a nice contrast with its percussive, well, crunching, though touched with moments both jazzy and wistful.

Then we had Philippe Leroux’s PPP (1993) for flute and piano, which was more entertainingly muscular than flute/piano duos often are. That was followed by a different duo, one for clarinet and cello, Change and End (2010) by Gerald Shapiro (who was in attendance, as was Edmund Campion). There was a touching timeless quality about the piece – if you came to it with no context, it might be hard to say whether it was contemporary with us or with the French impressionists. It seemed both bucolic and elegiac (the composer’s program note mentioned that he wrote the piece while his 93-year-old mother was dying, and the piece is dedicated to her). I could see it being used for dance, the way baroque music always has underlying dance rhythms.

Next up was another collection of miniatures by Philippe Hersant, his Six Bagatelles (2007, 2010) in a new transcription for clarinet, cello, and piano. I particularly liked the second bagatelle (which I may or may not be remembering correctly as dreamy) and the fifth, which reminded me of Prokofiev’s sarcastic style. The final piece, and the first which brought all four performers on stage together, was Edmund Campion’s Auditory Fiction (2010), for flute, clarinet, piano, cello, and computer. The performers all wore earpieces connected to the computer so they could follow “in-ear click-tracks which coordinate four independent, flexible, shifting sequences of time. Each instrument in Auditory Fiction can act independently in time or join together with the quartet in perfect sync.” I’m quoting Campion’s program note, partly because I’m not quite clear what this means: does the click-track simply function as an invisible mechanical conductor? Or does it shift things around so that something different happens in each performance? The music had a very bright, clear sound, and at the beginning it reminded me of a round, where they start off together and then go off in their own directions. I was in my preferred spot in the first row, but for this piece I might have preferred being a bit further back.

These were all fairly brief, even intimate pieces (I don’t think any of them was over fifteen minutes) and the selection was both coherent and varied. I would happily have heard any or all of them over again. The performers were fabulously committed and keen. The set-up was perfect: about 90 minutes, no intermission, brief and efficient set-ups between each piece, and no talking at us, just music. Sweet, thank you!

Campion, who is a professor at Cal, had given a talk beforehand, but I didn’t go since I didn’t know about it (though I might not have gone anyway; I find such talks either vague and full of stuff I already know or could guess, or so technical that they’re distracting and don’t help my experience as a listener). I hadn’t received the subscriber e-mail about the concert because I decided to go at the last minute. “The last minute” for me is two days beforehand. There was a fair-sized audience (including Lisa), but there were plenty of seats available, and though I was delighted to be able to sit with no one around me, I recognize that the performers and presenters would probably prefer a full house.

I ended up being glad I had bought a ticket in advance, because when I woke up this morning it was raining heavily and out of the blue (the vanished blue) I had a splitting headache. Both cleared up enough so that I ventured forth, but if I hadn’t already paid for a seat I might have just bagged it and stayed home and missed out on a terrific ensemble and an exceptionally entertaining and well-run concert. I hope Ensemble Zellig will be regular visitors.

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