24 February 2014

Eco Ensemble: Bedrossian, Jodlowski, Ligeti

Last Saturday I went up to Hertz Hall on the UC-Berkeley campus to hear their new music group, the eco ensemble, led by David Milnes. According to a note in the program the ensemble's name comes from its connections to the cultural ecosystem in the Bay Area; nonetheless they pronounce the name like "echo" and not "eeko." I have been to several of their previous concerts and have to admit I hadn't given the name much thought. I figured it was related to the Italian Ecco, which is like the French voilà, but of course it's spelled differently, and that point my theories broke down and my mind wandered elsewhere.

The first piece was titled IT, composed by Franck Bedrossian in 2004 and revised in 2007. I won't quote anything the program says about it because I read the write-up and it did not sound particularly enticing. It turned out to be a stunner, and the write-up didn't do it justice (I can't say mine does, either, in all honesty). It begins quietly, then swells up into strange, growling, enticing bursts of sound and the saxophone slowly rises through and the sounds end by circling back to the quiet beginning. It was fascinating, given the instrumentation (listed below), to hear what sounds were produced; in a way you were made intensely aware of the nature of each instrument exactly because they were often called on to produce sounds that were not what you expected from them. At times the noise from the saxophone seemed mostly the player's fingers strumming the keys; the violin and cello produced eerie whispers. I was shocked when I realized afterwards that the piece was only about ten, possibly fifteen minutes long; I mean it as a sincere compliment when I say it seemed much longer: it was such a varied, intriguing, rich sound world that I was sure we must have covered as large a temporal area as we did aural.

The players were Stacey Pelinka on flute, piccolo, and alto flute; Bill Kalinkos on bass clarinet; David Wegehaupt on alto saxophone; Hrabba Atladottir on violin; Leighton Fong on cello; and Ann Yi on piano. All were excellent. I particularly enjoyed Wegehaupt on saxophone; he threw himself physically into his playing, so that at times his left leg it seemed involuntarily went across his right knee (at one point, and it may just have been the angle from my seat, it looked as if he were using his left heel as a mute on the saxophone).

While the stage was being set up for the second piece composer and Berkeley professor Edmund Campion came on stage, clearly excited by what he had just heard, and brought Bedrossian on stage. The latter has recently joined the music department at Berkeley. He was lanky and soft-spoken and looked pleased and took every opportunity to thank the musicians. He said he had composed the piece "about nine years ago" but that it was still representative of his work.

Campion introduced the next piece by saying that they were all very glad that Hertz Hall had a new sound system (it was then I noticed semi-discreet black speakers hung at intervals down the lengths of the side walls) so they could do spatial music pieces like Pierre Jodlowski's Limite Circulaire (composed in 2008). The house was darkened and Tod Brody came out and played flute, alto flute, and bass flute, while various flutish-related electronica, managed by Greg T. Kuhn and Jeff Lubow, came through the speakers in various places of the hall. It was enjoyable enough but with pieces like this I tend to feel after the first few minutes that I've pretty much gotten the point. It did suffer from comparison with the intense overload of the first piece, which I was hoping they would play again as an encore.

It also suffered by comparison with the third piece, Ligeti's Chamber Concerto from 1969 - 1970, though unfortunately there was an intervening intermission. I prefer not to have the mood- and behavior-break caused by intermissions if it's at all physically possible, and in this case it certainly was, since the players were mostly different for each piece and the whole concert, including late start, set-up time, and intermission, was only 90 minutes, so playing the whole thing straight through certainly wouldn't have taxed anyone unduly. The Ligeti is in four movements, each quite distinct in its sound world, though throughout each note seemed to wobble and dissolve immediately into another note, as if the whole piece were coming to us with the wavy indeterminacy of a mirage, a hallucination of an early symphony. The third movement, Movimento preciso e meccanico, was particularly striking; it brought to mind (as the program note also noted) the sound of Ligeti's piece for 100 metronomes (the Poème Symphonique). The players for this piece were Stacey Pelinka on flute and piccolo; Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, oboe d'amore, and cor anglais; Peter Josheff on clarinet; Bill Kalinkos on clarinet and bass clarinet; Alici Telford on horn; Brendan Lai-Tong on tenor trombone; Ann Yi on harpsichord and Hammond organ ("Oh, look, a harpsichord!" exclaimed an audience member as we walked back into the hall after intermission; it was perhaps not what he was expecting to see at a concert of contemporary music, though he sounded pleased); Karen Rosenak on piano and celesta; Jennifer Curtis and Dan Flanagan on violin; Ellen Ruth Rose on viola; Leighton Fong on cello, and Richard Worn on double bass.

Eco Ensemble's next concert is 12 April; they are presented by Cal Performances.

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