Icebreaker V surveys the contemporary music of Western Europe

Composer Michiel Mensingh

With the first official weekend of Icebreaker V over, no one can accuse the Seattle Chamber Players of being timid or short on vision. SCP’s Icebreaker festivals have become important staples for Seattle’s new music scene. Each festival has gone beyond the one before. Two years ago, the emphasis was on American music and SCP brought in music gurus Kyle Gann and Alex Ross to curate a festival of their favorite American composers. There were the premieres and commissions SCP is known for, but the festival was largely a contained event, neatly filling three days with musical activities.

For Icebreaker V, world premieres and SCP commissions dominated a substantial amount of the program. There were still composer forums — Saturday’s schedule included almost a full day of discussions with the composers featured over the three days. But, SCP expanded the festival to ostensibly encompass two weeks, incorporate performances by groups and musicians active in Western Europe’s new music scene, and include large pieces by Gyorgy Kurtag and Heiner Goebbels.

While the most anticipated part of the festival is yet to come, next week’s performance of Heiner Goebbels’ modern masterpiece “Songs of Wars I’ve Seen,” the breadth of music covered in the first weekend was a formidable survey of contemporary music on its own.

Fixed at the center of this year’s Icebreaker was the performance of Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Kafka Fragments” by SCP violinist Mikhail Shmidt and soprano Agata Zubel. Shmidt and Zubel hatched the idea to perform “Fragments” over dinner at a “bad” Mexican restaurant in Warsaw, Poland. At almost an hour long, “Fragments” is one of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag’s longest and most daunting works. It is a song cycle, but the songs are unlike anything most will ever hear. Most of the songs last less than a minute. Some are even as brief as a few shouts, like the fourth song “Restless.” To the casual ear, each song is a fragment, strung together to create a series of stream of consciousness moments. Cogitate a little longer, and you come to realize that you are witnessing to the innermost thoughts and feelings of a composer we deserve to hear more of.

The demands placed on the soprano and violinist are extraordinary. For a soprano brave enough to sing the piece, her voice must hold out for an hour of yelps, screams, sing-speaking, and even touching songs. Shmidt’s role is no less demanding; the violinist’s music is thought to be unplayable. As a duo, the two are often more at odds with one another than in sync; a requirement of the piece. The two parts do occasionally meld to achieve achingly beautiful results. This is true for the final song of the cycle, “The Moonlit Night Dazzled Us,” where both Shmidt’s violin and Zubel’s voice overlapped for an obvious tribute to his marrriage that ends in a whisper. The whisper was followed by a roar of approval from the audience.

Earlier in the day, the Italian based Xenia Ensemble — made up of musicians from Ireland (violinist, Eilis Cranitch); United Kingdom (cellist, Elizabeth Wilson); and Germany (pianist, Caroline Weichert) — treated a curious crowd to a survey of Italian contemporary music. At a post performance talk, the trio told the audience their set came together at the last minute after their planned string quartet program fell through when the Italian government decided to provide only three airfares. Thus, the ensemble cobbled together a program of piano trio music. The most familiar Italian contemporary names, Luigi Nono and Luciano Berio, were gone from the program and in there place were trios and solos from composers like Alberto Colla, Francesco Balilla Pratella, Alfredo Casella, Lucio Gregoretti, and others.

The Xenia musicians lamented the relative lack of contemporary Italian music for piano trio. I was surprised by the perfunctory and sometimes light nature of the pieces they picked; a result of Italy’s lyrical tradition. Whatever the reason, the performances were gratifying to hear. A slight change to the concert placed the “Finale” to Pratella’s Piano Trio first. Pratella, we were told by the Xenia Ensemble, was a leading exponent of the Italian Futurist movement. I expected the “Finale” would be a craggy and dense; a jarring introduction to the world of contemporary Italian chamber music. Instead, Pratella’s piece drove forward with gripping force, sprinkled with expressive melodies and raw passion I associate with Shostakovich’s two piano trios.

Pratella wasn’t the only composer on the Xenia Ensemble’s set list who dabbled in a comprehensible  idiom. There was a lurching, slightly crooked sounding “Foxtrot” by Alfredo Casella and Lucio Gregoretti’s “Looking Up for piano,” lulled listeners with dreamy pitter patter. The most demanding piece — Alberto Colla’s “1916: forze di megalopoli in fronte” — came at the end, where sections of brash freneticism evanesce into glassy contemplation for contradictory results.

Compared to Saturday’s performances, the first night of this year’s festival demanded the most from listeners. Tomoko Mukaiyama teamed up with SCP for two world premieres — Michiel Mensingh’s “Style Wars V, Minimal Madness” and Yannis Kyriakides‘ “Satellites.” Mukaiyama is an accomplished pianist — that was obvious enough by her playing — but ten years ago, she branched out from behind the clavier to become a visual artist as well. It’s hard to say how much of an impact this experience has made on her playing. I noticed a fastidious attention to color and shape in her playing. Phrases glided and pounced. Notes bristled with urgency and lingered in the air. In both pieces, music was transformed into art greater than just the notes in a score.

Of the two pieces, “Minimal Madness” suited me best. Mensingh’s piece follows an earlier work — “Style Wars IV, Postmodernism Strikes Back.” Like his earlier work, which jammed modern classical music and popular music into the same piece, he collides twelve tone music with minimalism in “Minimal Madness,” creating jagged Bergian sound shapes that hypnotize with Glassian repetition.

“Satellites,” the longer of the two works, was comparatively placid. The piece’s twelve movements alternated between movements for ensemble (piano, electronics, cello, violin, flute, and clarinet) and solo movements that featured each of the six musicians. While the notes point out the composer’s objective was to chart paths across varying soundscapes, the experience was closer to hearing a chamber concerto for six different instruments. If Mensingh’s work resembled what would happen if Alban Berg met Philip Glass, “Satellites” embodied the unruffled composure of Mark Rothko or John Luther Adams.

Though this year’s Icebreaker festival might be bigger, it (so far) hasn’t strayed far from its purpose: that is, to present an survey of contemporary music from different geographic regions. Over the first two nights, listeners heard the best of Italy, Hungary, and the Netherlands with Ukraine, Russia, Denmark, and Germany yet to be explored. Knowing the Seattle Chamber Players they approached the rest of the festival with the sense of adventure and artistic purpose that have made the group a favorite on Seattle’s contemporary music scene.

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