New York Times: Berio Sequenzas

Celebrating New Music, Just Off the Beaten Path

New York Times
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Calling your new-music festival Darmstadt Essential Repertoire is a conscious provocation on multiple levels, as the New York composers Zach Layton and Nick Hallett surely realized when they chose the name. It alludes to the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, a venerable and formidable German laboratory for avant-garde innovation, known for dogmatic (and sometimes rancorous) adherence to modernist severity.

By contrast, Darmstadt Classics of the Avant-Garde, the concert series Mr. Layton and Mr. Hallett present regularly in New York nightclubs and other unorthodox spaces, embraces rigor only in the sense of polished performances. Otherwise the mode is casual, the aesthetic open-minded and inclusive. Darmstadt Essential Repertoire, the three-year-old festival that opened at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn on Wednesday night, follows suit.

“Essential” is a matter of perspective and taste but also implies an optimistic volition: here, the organizers assert, are works worth preserving, playing and celebrating. Even “repertoire” has multiple shades: in the simple sense of material to be performed and in deeper dimensions of worth and permanence.

Several events in this year’s festival venture to troublesome frontiers. Stockhausen, the subject of Thursday’s concert and a central figure in the original Darmstadt courses, was a marginalized enigma when he died in 2007, with works once considered seminal lapsed into disuse. John Cage and Christian Wolff, represented in Friday’s event, elude canonicity. Saturday’s concert addresses two Minimalist milestones: one obscure (“An Hour for Piano” by Tom Johnson), the other impractical (Philip Glass’s opera “Einstein on the Beach,” parts of which will be played in arrangements by the violinist Mary Rowell).

But by now few would dispute that Berio’s “Sequenzas,” a series of intense, virtuosic pieces for solo performers, have achieved repertory status. On Wednesday, the first 10 of these works (there are 14 in all), played by a starry roster of young new-music luminaries, attracted a capacity crowd on a blustery night to a cozy space well off the beaten path.

These unsparingly difficult works have thrived because they appeal as much to a listener’s ear as to a musician’s sense of adventure. Some, like the First, for flute, suggest apotheosis; here, as Claire Chase fluttered, popped, swooped and sang, you felt that the instrument’s full potential had been achieved.

The Fifth, for trombone, limns the instrument’s capacity for robust humor with melancholy undercurrents; Chris McIntyre gave full measure to both in a poignant interpretation. “Sequenza IXa,” for clarinet, is a glorious outpouring that seemingly alludes to folk song, aria and jazz; Joshua Rubin, incapable of playing an inexpressive note, provided a commanding account.

Other “Sequenzas” cast against type. The Second, beautifully played by the harpist Shelley Burgon, brushes aside frippery and frills in favor of evocative mystery. Likewise, the Sixth turns the normally modest viola into a fiery protagonist; John Pickford Richards played with precision and stamina. The remaining “Sequenzas” had equally admirable advocates in the soprano Daisy Press, the pianist Stephen Gosling, the oboist James Austin Smith, the violinist Joshua Modney and the trumpeter Gareth Flowers.

Darmstadt Essential Repertoire runs through Saturday at the Issue Project Room, 232 Third Street, Gowanus, Brooklyn; (718) 330-0313,