The International Street Cannibals provide a Debussy-inspired feast

Mon Feb 08, 2016 at 1:20 pm
Cellist Michel Strauss and pianist Mary Jo Pagano performed Debussy's Cello Sonata Sunday. Photo: Martin D. Toub

Cellist Michel Strauss and pianist Mary Jo Pagano performed Debussy’s Cello Sonata Sunday. Photo: Martin D. Toub

There’s a strong and eminently winnable case to be made that Debussy is the quintessential modern composer. The mid–20th century dominance of atonal composers seems more and more a hiccup, the result of extraordinary circumstances. Tonal music proves its utility and power in every new piece, and it was Debussy who opened the way towards tonal music that used new forms and structures.

A prime exhibit in the case could be the excellent concert given Sunday afternoon at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery by the uniquely named ensemble International Street Cannibals. ICS played new and recent music born into the tradition Debussy made possible followed by Debussy himself.

Everything except the finale, Debussy’s Cello Sonata, was either new to America or to the world. Everything used tonality, often in the Debussyian organic collection of pitches, and everything placed high value on instrumental color.

All were played superbly. The first piece, Dominique Lemaître’s Stances, hommage à Henri Dutilleux, set an immediate tone. Written for cellist Dan Barrett, accompanied by pianist Jed Distler, Stances is a minor-key meditation that grows out of a repeated, ascending seven-note scale. Still and lean, the form is a pas de deux, with mournful cello lines slowly working their way around the the scale on the piano.

As the music moves along, it darkens and adds dense, sustained piano chords, and there is some evocative microtonality in the cello’s phrases. The playing brought the piece to a point of acceptance, and seemed an ideal realization of the composer’s ideas. Barrett especially played with a gorgeous, vocalized, baritone sound on the cello, and every note had a grainy resonance.

The American premiere of Thierry Escaich’s Sopra La Folia featured more superb cello playing, this time from Michel Strauss, who commissioned the composition. This is likely the only piece in the classical tradition that is scored for a tap dancer—Max Pollak performed along with Strauss, and also enlisted his body as a percussion instrument.

Far from a gimmick, the work itself is a great example of imagination and craft. Escaich uses tap and body percussion in a musical and structurally brilliant way. The music is based on the enduring baroque tune “La Folia,” subject of a thousand variations and even a treatise by Diego Ortiz. Escaich treats it in variation form, and the tap becomes a ground; through rhythm and the basic percussive ranges of high, low, and middle, he keeps the outline of the tune going. Meanwhile, the cello first compresses it and then takes it apart. Strauss’ sinewy, febrile playing was a pleasure, and Pollak’s phrasing was a marvel to witness.

Guitarist Fernando Maglia and flutist Linda DiMartino-Wetheril then played Maglia’s El toro amanecer, another U.S. premiere. This was organic music, with an improvisatory feel. It began with a compelling hesitancy, the two instruments offering ideas to each other, then developed into a conversation, guitar and flute searching for points to echo and transform.

It was written with deep understanding of the instruments, and the sensitive playing added to the music, especially DiMartino-Wetheril’s lovely sound—even her overblown, hollow tones were rich. The one drawback is that the piece doesn’t see the natural ending it creates, via a stretch where the flutist played only the head joint, making an uncanny sound like a cross of pan-pipe and slide whistle. That stretch is so striking that the music that follows, a bit of a recap, loses some luster in comparison.

Composer Christopher Lyndon-Gee took the keyboard part in his own piece, which offered another American premiere. For cello—Barrett again—and piano, Poema per Gaspara Stampa is Lyndon-Gee’s expressionistic response to the poetry of Stampa, an important Renaissance writer about whom little is known except for the desperate unhappiness she seemed to reveal via her words.

Also improvisatory, the music channels poetry through the song of the cello. The piano responds, sometimes gruffly, other times with sympathy, as if approving of or criticizing what it hears. The ultimate satisfactions may depend on one’s own response to Lyndon-Gee’s reading, but the music is full of attractive sounds that are made with care. It has an involving edge of personal intensity and the playing seemed ideal.

DiMartino-Wetheril gave the world premiere of Alastair Greig’s delicate, lovely solo Even by Moonlight I have no Peace, for alto flute. This is another response to literature, this time Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The expression may be hard to pin down, but the form outlines its own abstract narrative as it oscillates between agitation and contemplation, an outward focus and an inward one, conveyed through scattered individual notes and longer phrases that trailed off without resolution.

On the larger flute, with its inherent gauzy quality, DiMartino-Wetheril’s sound was unusually rounded, with a full center. Even by Moonlight can stand alone as a showcase piece for the instrument.

Strauss returned at the close, accompanied by pianist Mary Jo Pagano, for a gorgeous performance of Debussy’s Cello Sonata. The music seemed to come directly out of Strauss, the phrases in line with his breathing, the notes varied and articulated as if by speech. He and Pagano had a terrific, fluid communication, responsive to each other while completely given over to the music.

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