Editor: Marc Bridle
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Seen and Heard International Festival Review
Lincoln Center Festival 2005 (I): Ferneyhough, New Juilliard Ensemble, Joel Sachs (conductor), Paul Recital Hall, The Juilliard School, New York City, 18 July, 2005 (BH)
Ferneyhough: Carceri d’invenzione IIb (1984-85)
Ferneyhough: Time and Motion Study II (1973-76)
Ferneyhough: Lemma-Icon-Epigram (1981)
Ferneyhough: Terrain (1992)
New Juilliard Ensemble
Joel Sachs, conductor
John McMurtery, flute
Christopher Gross, cello
Gregory Boduch, electronics
Stephen Gosling, piano
David Fulmer, violin
Jung-Wan Kang, flute
Jacqueline Leclair, oboe, English horn (guest artist)
Moran Katz, clarinet, bass clarinet
Justin Brown, bassoon
David Byrd-Marrow, French horn
Alexander White, trumpet
Kirk Ferguson, trombone
Garan Fitzgerald, double bass
For music to sound complex rather than undifferentiated, one must be able to distinguish between events. Through perceiving them individually, their relationships can also be perceived, although not necessarily understood. That borderline is Ferneyhough’s point of departure.
-- Joel Sachs, from his program notes
Paul Recital Hall at the Juilliard School seats 278 people, and at 7:59 p.m., one of the ushers called for those in the audience sitting near empty seats to raise their hands. A woman next to me on a mobile phone pleaded, "My friend will be here shortly," and the usher admonished, "Not unless she’s in the room," and promptly filled the seat with someone waiting. That so many people wanted to get in to hear this concert was eye-opening, considering that this is a composer whose esthetic requires above-average concentration. With Ferneyhough, listeners might be advised to abandon expectations of "getting it" as a friend said afterward. While it might be tempting to succumb to the lure of wanting to understand this terribly complex music at first hearing, it is far better to just sit back, observe, and not worry about reaching conclusions too quickly.
The opening flute solo is related to the second section of the seven-part Carceri d’invenzione (recently presented here in its entirety by Ensemble 21), although this fragment, IIb, is not included in the cycle. The soloist begins by exploring the extreme upper and lower ranges of the instrument, followed by a section with virtually two pitches, before the final pages die out with sputtering flickers. Ferneyhough deploys all manner of techniques, especially short, puffy breaths – a fluttering sound that turns the flute into a half-percussion hybrid. John McMurtery executed this brief flight with the kind of assurance one sees in musicians twice his age.
For many, Christopher Gross’ intense reading of the Time and Motion Study II might have been the highlight of the evening – the tension made more so by a few minutes’ of preparation before the piece began. As he took the stage, he attached a small microphone to the lower portion of his cello -- "Looks like he’s giving it an EKG," said my friend -- and a similar one to his neck, which he wrapped with what appeared to be an Ace bandage, which as Joel Sachs later explained was to keep the microphone from slipping due to sweat.
And "sweat" is what we got, during Mr. Gross’ spectacularly committed essay. As the printed notes are played, they are then recycled immediately by the electronics in real time. In addition to time and motion, the piece is an exploration of memory, a word that kept reappearing as Mr. Gross played passages that were then redeployed electronically by a team of electrical engineers headed by Gregory Boduch (who received well-deserved cheers at the close). Each passage was then revived, altered, slightly changed, and ultimately erased. For the first few minutes or so, the performer is engaged in frenzied pizzicato, and then all manner of techniques take off – the cellist tapping the strings, raking them with his fingernails, and adding small bits of vocalization. Occasionally the prickly texture coalesces into grinding drones that almost sound like an electric guitar.
If one wasn’t always aware of what Ferneyhough had achieved, it didn’t matter. The performance was about as riveting as it gets, and this was an excellent example of why it is important to see a performer in action. Mr. Gross looks to be in his mid-twenties, and during the introduction to this evening, Mr. Sachs commented on how players today are ever more adept at meeting increasingly difficult demands. I wonder what cellists of say, thirty years ago would have made of this score. When some fret about the future of classical music, I would point them toward artists like Mr. Gross, and his unperturbed assurance in a work that would send some musicians to the local bar for a round of drinks.
I’ve now heard Stephen Gosling play Lemma-Icon-Epigram twice, and if nothing else, he should receive some sort of award acknowledging the unimaginable hours of study that he must have assigned to even figure out how to play this thing. The title refers to a form used by 16th-century poets, the emblema, which eventually evolved into three components: "lemma" (a superscription or adage), "icon" (an image), and "epigram" (in which the preceding elements are commented on or explained). All of this rather fades into the background upon hearing the work, which is a veritable explosion of virtuosic pianism, alternating with the occasional well-placed pause. It is difficult to imagine that your average pianist would be able to find musical meaning in this fiendishly difficult hurdle, but the seemingly unfazeable Mr. Gosling, as a friend remarked, played it as casually as if he were requesting another order of chips with a hamburger.
At fourteen minutes, Terrain feels like a half-hour violin concerto with the entire contents squashed into a much smaller mold. Ferneyhough’s soloist, here the excellent David Fulmer, begins alone as if launching a cadenza before the ensemble enters, before ultimately "grey fragments of previous statements return to lie like irregularly shaped boulders in a bleak tundra of postglacial devastation." Indeed, I had the uncanny sensation of traveling through a landscape self-destructing as we passed through it, melting in speeded-up motion. Again, the difficulty of this work is staggering, and Mr. Fulmer’s concentration and accuracy were matched measure for measure by the New Juilliard musicians, all guided by Mr. Sachs’ typical implacable assurance. As an aside, seeing composer Milton Babbitt sitting across the room made me muse on what another king of complexity was making of it all.
Interested readers may view pages from many of Ferneyhough’s scores at the British Music Information Centre: http://www.bmic.co.uk/.