Concert Review: Ensemble Intercontemporain

I’m telling you, we’re getting great stuff programmed here in Taipei. My knowledge of this concert goes back some time, to this day, actually, the day of a friend’s graduation recital (well, composition). Turns out the lady sitting behind me who talked before the program about inviting the Ensemble Intercontemporain to Taiwan was none other than this same friend’s professor, a woman who studied for a time under Brian Ferneyhough at Stanford. We spoke a bit after the concert and she and her student promised me they’d keep me posted on the concert and let me know when/how to get tickets. I was excited.
That was coming up on six months ago. Fast forward, fast forward, and I ask this same friend about the concert and he says, “It’s next week! You didn’t get tickets?” No. I did not. Mildly disappointed, I realized (just by using my brain…) that the concert wasn’t on any of the programs I’d looked at because it is being held at neither the concert hall nor the recital hall, both of which I frequent, but at the “experimental theatre” situated in the same building as the National Theater. I didn’t think to check that. Still mildly disappointed but trying to blame myself more than anyone else, I marked it off. Friend feels guilty, contacts me a few days ago to say he landed me a ticket. Huzzah.
Then there’s a typhoon. This past weekend was the Mid-Autumn festival (I think perhaps technically Friday or Saturday?) but we had Monday off as a national holiday as a result. It happened (wastefully) to coincide with a day of cancelled classes and work due to a pretty nasty typhoon that sprang up suddenly the week before and got quite strong before it made landfall on what was to be the evening of the concert. Earlier that same day, it was announced that both the lecture concert and actual performance of the evening would happen the following day (yesterday), Tuesday, September 29, at 6 and 8 pm. That day, as it turns out, was also a typhoon day, so I’m writing this coming off a long, unexpected holiday. Getting back to the grind is always tough.
Having only remembered the names of Boulez and Berio on the program, I decided to take another look (after a professor friend’s inquisition) at what actually was on the program, and it’s below:

Please also note that all pieces on the program this evening were Taiwan premieres.
So I took a moment or two to steal a listen to at least a few snippets of these pieces before the program to try to wrap my head around what’ll happen tonight. It reminds me a bit of outstanding unfamiliarity with which I approached the program for this concert back in January of some similarly modern music, because honestly, I haven’t any idea what any of this means. I’m familiar-ish with Boulez’s vocabulary, and I know enough about Berio’s Sequenze (the plural of sequenza, right?) to know what’s gonna happen with that piece, but I’m in entirely
new territory.
I’ve been writing feverishly the articles I will be posting for the next couple of months because I have another project I’ll be working on in November and need to be way ahead to have time for it.  (If anyone is planning on working on that project also, please get in touch with me!) But the stuff that I’m writing about, as you will know from yesterday’s post, is stuff that’s pretty familiar: sonata forms, multiple movements, familiar orchestrations, histories, tonalities, expressions, tradition, expectation, all of that, and I get it. Let me take an attentive first listen to a symphony (as long as it’s not…. Myaskovsky, at this point), and I feel I can kind of get my head around the work to some degree or other. Not so here.
I should say most everything starting with or coming after like, Darmstadt, I have a difficult time with. I found myself listening to a few snippets of the pieces online before I attended, and a question that popped into my head is “What am I supposed to feel?”
Granted, that’s a question that might make at least one of the composers angry (begins with a B- and ends in -oulez), but… it’s how I think about music. That being said, let’s talk about the evening. (And truth be told, despite the fact that I’d very likely never go seek out many of these works to listen to them more than once, if at all, I’d also never miss the chance to hear them live if offered, especially by an ensemble of such renown.)
Let us begin.
I hadn’t heard of Fausto Romitelli until I looked at this program, and I know very little of him now except that he died at the age of 41 of cancer and his piece on the program (or one half of it?) is dedicated to Gerard Grisey, who also appears on the program. The Romitelli work, included below (with three of the four same performers I saw last night) (clarinetist is different) begins with this flapping, sucking noise on the bass flute that is the most disgusting yet intriguing thing I’ve ever heard in classical music. Mme. Ophele, who spent the entire evening switching out her normal flute for piccolo, alto, or bass flute, was very focused, and it was the first time I’ve ever been worried about a boob slip in a concert. A few bits of information about the piece are available here at IRCAM. The two halves were apparently composed separately, about four years apart, but we’ll get to the second piece soon. I just wanted to hear more bass flute. I suppose it was a good warm-up for the Grisey later in the program.

Prima domenica had no sooner ended (had it?) than Jeanne-Marie Conquer (the violinist in the above video) stood up from her chair in front of the ensemble, facing us, and started on the double stops (I think) that marked the beginning of Berio’s Sequenza VIII for violin. It was far and away my favorite piece of the evening (sorry other members). For one, it’s likely the most classically-inclined sequenza of Berio’s set, and for two…. seeing someone (who is, to be honest, already quite beautiful, in a way) put such intensity and focus into such a small space, to develop something so complicated yet so delicate was no less than spellbinding. I found myself thinking that if there were any gateway drug to the Darmstadt school Berio’s sequenze or just really modern music, this is definitely it. It was awesome, and a joy to see live.
The third piece was one of Janet Jieru, 陳玠如, who I sadly didn’t get (or make) a chance to talk to. She’s a local professor who apparently came back from her studies in America not so long ago. Of all the pieces on the program, hers was the most… delicate, tender, the piece with melodies and glimpses of tonality that the uninitiated would grasp at for the duration of the piece. It was not very long, and had… almost jazzy elements, some almost unison passages, and was not as harsh as some of the other things we would hear that evening. I know many would take issue with my use of the word ‘harsh,’ but it’s what comes to mind.
Next was a piece that followed Ms. Chen’s (or vice-versa) in radiance and beauty, Boulez’s Improvisé, a very brief but quite pleasant piece that got its start in 1969. I feel like hearing only the piano in the piece, I’d have pegged it as Boulez, but it was far more lyrical and even softer than I’d have expected to experience from a Boulez piece. I was quite pleased, not only with the piece, but with myself for enjoying a Boulez work. Granted, it was very brief. My composer friend, student of the professor who helped to organize this event (linked above), said during the intermission that this piece was his favorite (of the first half).
What followed was Romitelli’s seconda domenica, the second half or the second part of the first? In any case, this piece, written a few years after the prima, was dedicated to Gerard Grisey. It included a harmonica and kazoo, played by the clarinetist, and pitch pipes (like those for guitar) played by both the clarinetist and the flautist (who already had three other instruments aside from the one on her face to deal with. I was and still am curious as to why they decided to split these two works up on the program, but in the moment, it seemed to make sense, the bookending. The sound effects and blowing and buzzing was… interesting, and almost thought-provoking, but only lasted a few minutes.
The intermission felt longer than it was (I was hoping only ten minutes or so) (and it was rather warm in the ‘experimental theatre’ a very cool space I was seeing for the first time). The entire second half was made up of Gerard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum, which is in three large parts (French notes here, English here, identical content as I can tell).

Perhaps I should have known to do my own research on this piece (and all of them, but especially the 40-minute one) before traipsing into the experimental theatre for this event. If I’d known what to pay attention to, what to look for, maybe this piece would have held my attention longer. There was no conductor, and the piece begins with busy sounds, mostly from flute and clarinet.
I should say…. spectralist stuff… I really don’t get. That’s no criticism; it’s a confession. While the piece was interesting to see, I can’t necessarily say I enjoyed it. There were times (some of the ‘dead space’ between the sections) where breathing was accented through the wind instruments, and people looked around to see where this effect was coming from. It, in some cases, because of the extended techniques (plucking of piano strings, breathing into the woodwinds, scratching and bowing and screeching on almost every part of the stringed instruments), it played out (live at least) almost like a scavenger hunt of sound: “Who’s making that noise?” The acoustics in the theatre were quite good, actually, a small space, so the eery, strange sounds filled the room. Clearly there was no instrument in the ensemble who usually sounds like sand being passed through a sieve, or of crystal bowls being played, but at times, all of these sounds (or images) were conveyed during the piece. Reading the above notes on the piece, I do wish I’d done my homework beforehand, but I still feel as if I enjoyed reading the article about the ideas of the piece in practice more than I do in execution. 
At the end of the program, one of the same professor’s other music students, sitting behind me, (one of many in attendance) a music major, expresses with wonderment or adoration, “They played it just like they’d play real (or ‘normal’) music!” and his female companion corrected him swiftly, “It is real music.” The young man seemed perplexed by the statement he’d made. Yes, of course it is real music, but…. “what am I trying to say?” Qualify that statement. The Ensemble Intercontemporain played passionately, with focus, intent, feeling. Only watching, you could be excused for thinking they were playing Brahms or Schubert. That is to say, while you as a listener might be perplexed at the emotions or sounds you’re feeling or hearing, the performers are at least as moved as you are, but really passionate, really convinced of this music; it isn’t a novelty. It’s a masterpiece.
That all being said, criticisms and ignorances aside, I must say I was extremely thrilled to be in attendance. Again, these are Taiwanese premieres, so it meant that all 150-200 of us packed in that small theatre last night were the first and only people so far to have heard those works on this soil, and why that doesn’t thrill more people is beyond me.
I thought about this during the last ten minutes or so of the Grisey work (which, despite looking at my watch and knowing roughly when that 40 minutes would be over, was convinced was nearly ending about six times), that some of our memories, especially of things we don’t really thoroughly understand, new environments, etc., are vague and wispy, as if a dream or something we read in a book, and I don’t want to look back on this concert and not remember things about it. So I made a conscious effort to gear up my attentiveness, pay attention, think, take it all in.
It’s like…. going to some foreign country you’ve never been to and will probably never go back to, and refusing to eat the local delicacies; this is something people do. “I’m not eating that; it’s gross.” “Well, we’ve been eating it for centuries and we’re doing okay.”
So take the chance, not because you like it but because you have the chance, to say you did it, to gain perspective, and maybe even find something new to be madly in love with. It is highly unlikely I will ever again sit through another performance, live or not, of the Romitelli or Grisey works, but I was very pleased to have heard them. I had thoughts, responses, and questions, which I suppose means… they were effective, they ‘worked,’ in some way. Not my favorite by any means, but I’ve tasted them, and I must say, the nature of those works in particular is such that recordings really do not do justice.
So that was my night with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, a name I wish was constantly on my clipboard to paste instead of type out. The performers seemed like the exact kind of people you’d want to sit on big sofas (or the floor, with rug) with and drink bottle after bottle of really good wine and chat late into the evening. They abided the typical clap-happy Taiwanese audience with a few exits and returns for bows, and after three or four returns, we (the rest of the audience, not I) begrudgingly ceased our bordering-on-distatefully-long applause. Wonderful evening. Berio’s Sequenza VIII has been moved way up the list. See you tomorrow for our first Russian symphony of the series.

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