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Feldman, Webern, Xenakis, Cage: Steven Schick (guest conductor), International Contemporary Ensemble, Alice Tully Hall, New York, 22.2.2011 (BH)


Feldman: The King of Denmark (1964)

Webern: Concerto for nine instruments, Op. 24 (1934)

Xenakis: Jalons (1986)

Cage: Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951)

Feldman: For Samuel Beckett (1987)


Two vastly different works by Morton Feldman made imposing, austere bookends to this program by the International Contemporary Ensemble, the opening night of Tully Scope, a new festival from the mind of Lincoln Center’s Jane Moss. Entering with bare feet, guest conductor Steven Schick (founder of red fish blue fish, the San Diego-based percussion ensemble) began the gossamer ballet that is Feldman’s The King of Denmark. The title refers to the Nazi occupation, when the Danish king walked through the streets of Copenhagen, silently protesting the Star of Israel that Jews were forced to wear.


The composer directs the player to use hands and fingertips—no brushes, mallets, sticks or other implements are used—and to play “as quietly as possible.” (I offer figurative cold glances toward those in the audience who didn’t feel the need to muffle their coughs, amplifying them for everyone to hear.) Watching Mr. Schick dart silently between various gongs and drums, gently flicking the surfaces to create tiny pings and shimmers, was to witness the artistry of one of today’s best percussionists, completely in his element.


Schick returned to lead Webern’s Concerto for nine instruments, etched in the composer’s typically compressed language. I would have liked just a bit more contrast in the three movements, as well as more crispness in the overall result, but all that seemed to fall by the wayside when the ensemble plunged into Xenakis’s Jalons (Signposts). Written for the tenth anniversary of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the piece is fourteen minutes of sheer aggression (said with pleasure). Staggered, fugue-like entrances at the beginning create dense chord pile-ups, until as the score proceeds, the instrumental forces separate somewhat in smaller skirmishes. Both Schick and the players seemed completely engrossed.


After intermission, John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4—with its 12 radios, each “played” by two musicians who control the station and the volume—made an amusing prelude to what was, for many, the evening’s climax: a rare performance of Morton Feldman’s final work, For Samuel Beckett. Its 45 minutes are pure Feldman: repeated, Ligeti-esque chord clusters, showing Feldman more anxious and ambiguous than in some of his more consonant meditations. The sense of suspension—of constant tension—never lets up, and the work’s starkness proved taxing to some in the audience (who left at various points). But make no mistake: if you’re going to hear this piece, a tight, focused reading like this one is exactly the way you want to experience it.


Bruce Hodges


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