An Intrepid Group Surveys an Idiosyncratic Composer
By STEVE SMITH
New York Times
For the International Contemporary Ensemble, an intrepid and adventurous new-music group based in Brooklyn and Chicago, presenting brash sounds and fresh discoveries is all in a day’s work, though stellar musicianship and infectious enthusiasm prevent any whiff of routine from tainting its labors. On Wednesday evening those qualities made its members ideal emissaries for Edgard Varèse, a maverick composer whose works will be featured during two concerts in this year’s Lincoln Center Festival.
Varèse, born in Paris in 1883, received his earliest training in France but was chiefly based in the United States from 1915 until his death in 1965. His reputation rests on a small, idiosyncratic and viscerally absorbing body of work in which he broke ground in form, harmony, timbre and rhythm. Practically his entire surviving oeuvre, amounting to around three hours of music, will be performed during “Varèse: (R)evolution,” a pair of concerts on July 19 and 20 featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble, the New York Philharmonic, So Percussion and other prominent artists.
Wednesday’s event, presented for a small, invited audience at the Yamaha Piano Salon on Fifth Avenue at 54th Street and streamed live on the Internet radio channel Q2 (wqxr.org/q2), was a tantalizing taste meant to whet appetites for the main courses to come. But included among the three works in the hourlong concert was a fascinating, substantial discovery: Varèse’s arrangement for two pianos, eight hands, of “Amériques,” the first piece he wrote after moving to New York from France.
Stormy, dissonant and elemental, the orchestral “Amériques” shows Varèse’s debt to Debussy and Stravinsky, as well as his quick absorption of his adopted home in its steely contours, clattering percussion and wailing sirens. Varèse created the work between 1918 and 1921, then revised it in 1927 to include a then-new electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot. Scholars believe that he created the piano arrangement, for reasons unknown, between the two orchestral versions.
Discovered among a cache of Varèse’s papers during a Basel exhibition in 2004, the piano arrangement was edited for a performing edition by Helena Bugallo, a pianist and half of the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo. The other half, Amy Williams, was featured in Wednesday’s performance along with the pianist Jacob Greenberg of the ensemble and two additional guests, Amy Briggs and Thomas Rosenkranz.
Missing in their account, obviously, was Varèse’s extraordinary instrumental palette with its heaving groans and desiccated chitters. Instead, you got an unusual glimpse of the work’s skeleton; recurring motifs obscured by Varèse’s orchestral density stood out with a sharp clarity. The pianists, at two instruments placed side by side, played with robust energy and balletic grace: a good thing, given the intricate cues and hand-crossings required by the arrangement.
The concert opened with Varèse’s most familiar work, “Density 21.5,” a brief flute soliloquy played by Claire Chase with her customary eloquence and focus. And Mr. Greenberg accompanied Samantha Malk, a soprano, in a velvety rendition of “Un Grand Sommeil Noir” (“A Long Black Sleep”), a song thought to be Varèse’s earliest surviving work. One final appreciative nod is due to the WNYC radio host John Schaefer, whose keen questioning during interview segments elicited enlightening responses from the performers.
“Varèse: (R)evolution” will be performed at the Lincoln Center Festival on July 19 and 20; (212) 721-6500.