Ekmeles program lives up to group’s name in Five Boroughs Festival closer

Tue Jun 30, 2015 at 1:07 pm
Ekmeles performed Monday night at teh DiMenna Center.

Ekmeles performed Monday night at the DiMenna Center.

“Ekmeles,” in Attic Greek, means “dissonant” or, to be less charitable, “unmusical”—“outside of the song.”

Let no one claim that the eponymous vocal group, led by Jeffrey Gavett, fails to live up to its name. Giving the last concert of the Five Boroughs Music Festival’s eighth season, Ekmeles and friends brought formidable musicianship to music that is decidedly not user-friendly.

The world premiere that opened the program was not likely to offend, if only because it was unlikely to arouse strong feelings of any kind. Christopher Fisher-Lochhead’s prosodia daseia is a piece for trombone with accompaniment from eight voices. In a brief introduction, Fisher-Lochhead described the work as an “energetic sculpture,” saying that he was less worried about traditional musical concerns such as harmonic and rhythmic relationships and more about the “arrangement in time of physical states of the performer.”

In other words, the composer wrote out the trombonist’s movements as well as his notes. Will Lang seemed to take it in stride, though he wasn’t exactly prancing across the stage—it was difficult to distinguish most of his gestures (which largely consisted of bobbing, bending, and weaving ever so slightly) from the normal range of a performer’s motion. This may have been part of why the piece felt inscrutable, though the musical writing surely played a role, as well.

The vocal accompaniment mostly provides a calm cushion while the trombonist goes through the sort of furious blatting, sliding, and gasping that currently seems popular among composers who have little or no experience with the trombone. There is some fascination with the instrument that leads composers to write for it seemingly by trial and error, discovering weird sounds along the way and stringing them together without much of a plan. It can certainly be interesting to watch a composer experiment in his work, but only to a point.

There is, however, in that persistent curiosity, an earnestness that is endearing, if not exactly riveting. By contrast, the closing piece on the program, by Mathias Spahlinger, embodies the avant-garde spirit at its most petulant, a willful protest against intelligibility. Spahlinger’s 1995 Über den frühen Tod Fräuleins Anna Augusta Marggräfin zu Baden (On the Untimely Death of Miss Anna Augusta, Marchioness of Baden), a setting of Georg Rudolf Weckherlin’s seventeenth-century poem of the same name, calls for eight voices, five trombones, trumpet, oboe, and clarinet.

From such an odd and varied instrumentation, and from a source text that extols its subject by comparing her to myriad wonders and delights, a composer might fashion a prismatic work of music, one that transports or even disorients its audience. Spahlinger does no such thing, notwithstanding some modest ornamentation here and there: “Ein schaur in Sommerszeit vergossen” (“A shower poured out in summertime”) is realized with darting pellets from both the instruments and the voices, while the relative calm of a unison note captures “Ein Stimm, die lieblich dahin fähret” (“A voice that carries forth beautifully”).

The overriding mode, though, is a general murkiness, with plaintive dissonance in the voices and insentient murmuring in the brass. The piece creeps on at an excruciating pace, and often fitfully—in this performance, the musicians took a slight pause after nearly every line in the first four stanzas (that’s twenty-eight lines in total). The fifth stanza, whose text recaps in brief the previous comparisons, seemed to take as much time as the other four combined, growing only more stagnant as it approached its end. It was as if, in one last quasi-Duchampian prank, Spahlinger were trying to see just how long he could string his audience along before they lost their minds.

The most effective piece on the program challenged the listeners without approaching them as adversaries. Wolfgang Rihm’s 2008 Skoteinós, a setting of nine fragments of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, is no more mainstream than the other two pieces, but shows vastly more range and offers more communicative material to the three singers (Brian Giebler, Jeffrey Gavett, and Steven Hrycelak, all in excellent voice). The piece’s musical scenery is varied, often presenting moments of near consonance that soon ferment and decompose. The character of motion, too, changes—a hard brass fanfare gave way to a beautiful, insistent tenor solo from Giebler, discoursing on harmony and discord. But the most striking thing about Skoteinós is the musical space it creates, leaving many silences just as charged as the sounds that frame them.

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