It turned out to be an evening of surprises at Paula Cooper Gallery with the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble conducted by Petr Kotik. The brighly lit vaulted white space was filled to the ceiling by a giant metal construction by Mark di Suvero – you may have seen another of his outdoor sculptures work in the “Occupy Wall Street” park. The musicians were unconventionally spread out by sections within various areas of the space, as if woven within the sculpture. 

The first piece, a 1966 electronic composition by Petr Kotik titled Kontrabandt (possibly a German-to-English pun, contraband? Contra – band?) was commissioned by Stockhausen and first realized in Cologne – but when I was expecting a tape piece, the surprise was how it was delivered interactively, with several musicians equipped with mixers, playing with small bits of the recording and operating percussion instruments, not randomly but following a visual score.

 The second piece also by Kotik was a last minute addition to the program, a 2011 composition for string quartet, mysteriously titled Torso, and thankfully, composed with no attempt to the sonata form with contrasting textures and spastic rhythms with an edge of dissonance.

Another surprise was Kate Soper, vocalist and composer; a remarkably agile vocalist with impressive bell-like highs to deep contralto tones, and a modern sound as well – you wouldn’t catch her using too much vibrato, just a very clear, gorgeous tone. Her ‘’cipher” piece for voice and violin which she performed with Joshua Modney, explored unison and the colors and microtones within that unison, and from that sonority, weaved patterns in an intimate connection between voice and instrument – but make no mistake, there was no emotion or sentimentality here, only the purest expression.

For another surprise Kotik dug up a Renaissance piece by the not-so-obscure Giovanni Gabrieli (who has a Facebook page…) which was arranged with lots of trumpets, trombones and tubas for a very full sound, and the clever string players seemed to have made their instruments sound like early music instruments – a Christmas offering.

 The John Cage pieces – Atlas Eclipticalis, Aria (sung by Kate Soper) and Fontana Mix were presented as a ‘medley’, one following the other smoothly. Everything has been said about John Cage, except that he is a classic. Especially within the framework of the sculpture in the gallery, and the musicians scattered throughout the piece attained that “expect the unexpected” texture while being actually fun to hear.

Another surprise and obscure dig was the Nono piece for 2 violins moving around the space between movements with uncompromising harmonies that seemed to just go on for ever but intensely performed by Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris.

If I can read between the lines though, in this concert’s program in general, I hear a dissonance, a tension, an edge, a sense of the fragility of our survival, a human concern, a softness of the heart without sentiment. And I certainly can relate to how difficult it is nowadays to continue producing work of this quality.

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