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S & H International Concert Review

Composer Portrait: The Music of Olga Neuwirth, Pascal Gallois (bassoon), Rand Steiger, guest conductor, Ensemble Sospeso, Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York City, Friday, February 6, 2004 (BH)

torsion: transparent variation (2001) (American premiere)
quasare/pulsare (1996)
ad auras…in memoriam h. (1999)
verfremdung/entfremdung (2002) (American premiere)
torsion: transparent variation (2001)

"To me, the purpose of music cannot possibly be to lull people to sleep with the promise of creating a unity overcoming all contradiction and to make them docile…"

--Olga Neuwirth

Just a week after a tribute to one of the world’s veteran living composers, Elliott Carter, the uncompromising Ensemble Sospeso brought a heap of seldom-played works of Olga Neuwirth, the young Austrian championed by Pierre Boulez. At 95, Carter is still writing at the top of his game, at the apex of so-called "high modernism," while Neuwirth is just beginning to make her unique voice heard, with a style incorporating radically dissimilar elements and breaking down assumptions about form.

Her music is exacting, chaotic, sometimes difficult to digest and equally difficult to describe. Take, for example, ad memoriam h., scored for two violins and percussion (more specifically, a snare drum played with a soft mallet). The excellent, empathetic musicians – Mark Menzies and Vesselin Gellev on violin, coupled with David Shively on percussion – could not have made a better case for this subtle head-scratcher, devoutly performed with keen attention to its low-key dramatic effects. It is an odd work that I’d like to hear again. Menzies also teamed up with Steve Gosling on piano for a showy performance of quasare/pulsare, after Gosling had spent a good four or five minutes meticulously preparing the piano. The unchartable dialogue between the two instruments ended with Menzies turning as if to briefly query the audience, completely consonant with Neuwirth’s restlessness.

Also intriguing was verfremdung/entfremdung, elegantly done by Gosling and Cécile Daroux, with mysteriously integrated electronic sounds emanating from six speakers placed around the hall.

The showpiece was torsion: transparent variation, and given that this was its first American performance, it was savvy to do it twice. At about twenty minutes long, with a star turn by Pascal Gallois, bassoonist with the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, this is quite an experience, with hyperactive variations contrasting with five "voids," recorded in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, in which dreamlike stretches of droning electronic wash are occasionally punctuated with faint fragments of a distant klezmer band, as if glimpsed from old 78rpm recordings. As each variation by the ensemble subsided, the stage darkened as the electronic mix surged to the forefront, and then returned to normal when the variations resumed, as if the ensemble had somehow snapped back into the present.

How can one describe the experience of watching Gallois, renowned for his circular breathing, perform this piece? One could focus exclusively on his mouth, his puffed out cheeks undulating as if he were trying to chew a particularly tough piece of steak. (For those unfamiliar with circular breathing, it is a continuous inhalation/ exhalation process by which a woodwind or brass player can create notes held much longer – quite a bit longer – than those produced with a single breath.) But the rather unglamorous activity produced some heavenly long tones that seemed to emerge from another world.

This was only my third encounter with Neuwirth’s vocabulary, after hearing Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra tackle Clinamen/Nodus in 2000, and Sospeso’s performance of Suite from Bählmanns Fest at Lincoln Center the same year. I liked both, but often a composer’s more personal thoughts are encased in smaller housings, such as the pieces on this program, and Sospeso should be thanked for allowing us a repeat performance of a piece that might be one of the early hits in her young career (Neuwirth is only 35).

Whatever one’s first impression might be, she is a provocative artist well worth getting to know, one whose seeming inscrutability yields later to a perhaps surprising understanding.

Bruce Hodges




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