S.E.M. Ensemble serves up a bounty of old and new premieres

Sun Dec 20, 2015 at 2:59 pm
Petr Kotik conducted the S.E.M. Ensemble Saturday night at the Paula Cooper Gallery.

Petr Kotik conducted the S.E.M. Ensemble Saturday night at the Paula Cooper Gallery. Photo: Michael Yu

The S.E.M. Ensemble’s annual December concert at the Paula Cooper Gallery has been dominated in recent years by music from Petr Kotik, the ensemble’s founder and music director. The previous two concerts have featured Kotik’s substantial settings of text from Gertrude Stein, Many Many Women and his new opera Master-Pieces.

The 2015 installment of the series, heard Saturday night, had another Stein-based work from Kotik on the program, but was otherwise entirely different. Packed with music, the concert featured several notable world and American premieres.

Some of the music was several hundred years old: the ensemble played two tidy works by 17th century Moravian composer Pavel Jan Vejvanovsky. His Sonata la posta opened the concert, and his Serenata in C landed in the middle of the second half, in a U.S. premiere that took a mere 340 years or so to come together.

These were refreshing pieces, with some unexpected harmonies, and, for the Serenata, an unusual form that combines elements of a dance suite with a proto-symphony. The ensemble played both works neatly.

The only connection between Vejvanovsky’s music and the rest of the concert was geographic. Moravia is home to the city of Ostrava, where Kotik runs the biannual Ostrava Days festival of new and experimental music, probably the leading one of its kind. The bulk of the music had an Ostrava connection: Eli Greenhoe’s Etymology and Alvin Lucier’s Orpheus Variations premiered there this past August, and though Lisa Hirsch’s Four Glides had its world premiere Saturday, she was also at Ostrava in the summer, where she played a similar, new work.

Etymology is for solo trombone, played by the great William Lang. This is a simple and well-made work that explores the sound of the instrument. Lang alternated muted, multi-phonic tones with wide open, arpeggiated chords, and made a lovely sound whatever he was doing. As the piece goes along it builds material, from an emphasis on a rising dominant to tonic relationship all the way to a short passage that sounds like an improvised solo. The accumulation grows in interest and satisfactions.

Hirsch’s piece opened the second half, and is based around a technique she calls “gliding;” sliding an edged object, like a plastic ruler, along a group of parallel piano strings until they vibrate enough to produce pitches and overtones. It’s experimental in that there is no certainty which tones or timbres will come out.

For Four Glides, the gliding was prerecorded on video, projected on the wall, which along with the amplification was effective in showing her technique. She produced a slow, rising glissando, full of dissonant overtones that balanced pleasure with pain, and with a metallic, feedback-like edge. The musicians (two violins, viola, bass, two trumpets, and two trombones) picked out individual overtones and matched them with their own sustained pitches.

Hirsch’s music is enveloping and out of time, like the microtonal music of Giacinto Scelsi, but with a different aesthetic and philosophy—she’s spinning out material and setting up a system for organizing it on the fly. The concentrated quiet and listening this demands from the musicians spreads to the audience, there’s a communal experience of witnessing something grow and disappear.

Lucier’s piece, making its U.S. debut, is written for a cellist (Charles Curtis) and seven instruments. The work comes out of a beguiling, ambiguously dissonant chord in Stravinsky’s Orpheus. Lucier broke the chord down, rebuilt 103 permutations, and then set the cellist playing through three times with the other instruments taking turns joining in the other notes of each permutation.

With Kotik conducting, the Saturday performance had a more deliberate tempo and a greater emphasis on sonority that the premiere in Ostrava. In one way, the music is sort of a stylized, skeletized repetitive minimalism, with slow chord arpeggiations. In another, the piece is an exploration of memory. There are times when the instruments come together with both a voicing and an orchestration that is close to that of Stravinsky’s work. This triggers a deep, unnamable, voluptuous response of experience. The performance was darkly beautiful.

Outside of the baroque and the premieres, baritone Jeffrey Gavett and percussionist Chris Nappi performed Xenakis’ Kassandra. The composer added this, in 1987, to his dramatic piece Oresteïa, and it’s one of the most gripping parts of that overall work. It’s a dialogue between Kassandra and a chorus of elders, and the baritone takes both parts, singing in falsetto for the prophetess and in normal voice for the chorus.

The performance was excellent. Gavett, plucking out dissonant figures on a small zither, handled the different colors with ease, and both he and Nappi played out the rhythms clearly and forcefully. This music falls under the heading of new, but it sounded ancient—it’s less singing than intoned, rhythmic recitation, put into structure and form, and is likely the sound of the roots of Western poetry and music.

The final work on the program was not just a world premiere but wet-ink new: Kotik’s Reiterations and Variables, composed from October through this month.

Kotik described it in the program as combining new material with modified excerpts of earlier music, notably the Stein pieces, with Gavett and soprano Kamala Sankaram singing the text settings. He combined this with a solo for violinist Conrad Harris, all backed by eleven instruments (Kotik conducted and played the flute).

The soloists and ensemble flow together independently, playing music that moves in and out of synchronization and cooperation, seemingly by chance (though that is the design). There was an unexpected wildness in the piece, very different than the mesmerizing focus of so much of Kotik’s large-scale works. At times it sounded freely improvised, yet full of steady ideas. Harris’ solo was expressive, and the work ended with him playing alone. It’s a wild-card surprise coda, and likely even Kotik himself needs to hear it a few times before the shape becomes clear.

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