Music by Wolff, Sciarrino, Kotik, Carter, and Ligeti / Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, Ostravská Banda, FLUX Quartet; Petr Kotik, Conductor /Alice Tully Hall, May 6, 2009

Conductor/composer Petr Kotik has been an impressive advocate for contemporary music in New York for forty years. Residing in the US since 1969, he has been running the S.E.M. ensemble since 1970: performing a wide range of repertoire, commissioning works and cultivating successive generations of young players into seasoned new music performers. S.E.M.’s orchestral unit has been active since ’92; Kotik’s also been running Ostravská Banda, an international chamber orchestra comprised of S.E.M. players and young European counterparts, since ’05. Both of these groups, as well as the FLUX string quartet, another youngish ensemble devoted to new music, were featured on Wednesday night’s Tully Hall performance: a program of brand new chamber music and three contemporary works that seem destined for the core repertory.

Christian Wolff’s Trio for Robert Ashley (commissioned for the concert) employed three of the FLUX members – violinist Tom Chiu, violist Max Mandel, and cellist Felix Fan – in a fragmentary multi-movement piece. Indeed, its juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated musical materials set the tone for an evening devoted to unorthodox formal presentation. Sustained notes were set against skittering, Webernian motifs. Single lines evaporated into pensive rests while vigorous tutti were all too ephemeral; evaporating into the silence from when they came.

In its US premiere, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Vento D’Ombra made quite an impression. Another work which employed silences as well as fragmentary gestures as signatures, it focused on tiny musical cells – mostly dyads and trichords – as well as a cornucopia of special effects. Wind and brass players breathed through mouthpieces without fingering notes, strings played scordatura and microtones. The whole was a meticulously shaded pointillist canvas of brief gestures, undulating slides, and pianissimo staccato dabs.

Kotik’s own String Quartet was cast in a lengthy single movement. Impeccably performed by FLUX, it was centered on an ambling, long-breathed melody played by the quartet in unison (later in octaves). Only gradually did this evolve into two-voice counterpoint, with a violin countermelody that took on greater urgency. Tutti passages ratcheted up the tension quotient still further, evocative of some of the brilliant polyphonic passages from Ligeti’s second quartet. The idée fixe unison passage returned at pivotal junctures, requiring precise coordination and tuning on the part of FLUX: both were readily supplied.

Elliott Carter’s recent ‘second piano concerto,’ Dialogues, is a fascinating companion piece to the monolithic concerto from the 1960s. Written for a much smaller orchestra, it allows the soloist to take on an enlarged role. In a clever inverse of its larger precursor, the pianist often overwhelms the ensemble, cowing it with brilliant virtuosity. Daan Wandewalle was an excellent protagonist, supplying brilliant cadenzas, thunderous verticals, and an overarching sense of shaping and musicality.

However, some of the members of the band are unwilling to be cowed. In particular, the English horn, played ardently here by Jan Souek, gently prods at the pianist to cease his overwrought, rampant solo turns. Eventually, the pianist, tiring of interruptions by the cor anglais, banishes him from the piece; the player plays only oboe thereafter. The combined exertions of the entire ensemble eventually subdue the soloist, suborning him into one of the delightful dissolutions that have become the stock in trade of the Carterian coda.

While Carter would be the first to maintain that the piece is pure music, about dialogues only in the sense of ensemble relationships, it’s tempting to draw a timely quasi-programmatic analogy. Much as the Piano Concerto was about the individual being overwhelmed by the collective, a very timely idea during its Cold War genesis, Dialogues can be seen to be concerned with the postmodern, post-millennial conundrum: the fears of society being overwhelmed by the overweening actions of individuals. It was also fascinating to hear the piece in light of what came before; a sense of fragmentation and disconnection was heightened in Kotik’s reading.

Gyorgy Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is a watershed work, combining the hallmarks of the Hungarian composer’s late style: polyrhythms, a rapprochement between folk elements and modernity, microtones/alternate tunings, and whiffs of minimal ostinati around the edges. Although the piece is nearly twenty years old, it still has the capacity to surprise; as hearing delightfully startled audience members during the wind sections’ ocarina passages attested. S.E.M. clearly had approached preparing this work with dedication and care. A few horn flubs aside (Ligeti showed no mercy in their parts), the group gave a solid performance of the concerto, one that highlighted its dramatic thrills without ever sacrificing a sense of proportion.

Hana Kotková has a background performing Eastern European folk music as well as contemporary fare: an ideal skill set to bring to this work. Exuding commanding presence, her reading was sharply drawn, with a rhythmically incisive approach. The piece will be heard again in Tully later this week – on May 9th, it will be performed by no less than the Ensemble Intercontemporain. While one can imagine some of the details being brought into clearer focus, a more ardent rendering can scarcely be imagined.

Petr Kotik