Sound Icon brings theatrical flair to Fromm-inspired program

April 13, 2013 at 6:23 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Soprano Jennifer Ashe performed Luciano Berio’s “Circles” Friday night with Sound Icon at Paine Hall.

“Music is never pure,” Luciano Berio wrote in 1960. “It is attitude. It is theatre.”

If that is the case, then the musicians of Sound Icon proved to be more than capable actors in their rendering of Berio’s Circles and works by Liza Lim, Leon Kirchner, and Bruno Maderna Friday night at Harvard’s Paine Hall.

The common link to the composers represented on this program was legendary patron Paul Fromm. And Sound Icon’s program was just one event celebrating 60 years of the Fromm Foundation.

There’s another link: the composers, in their own ways, stretch acoustic instrumetal timbres to their limits in these works. Circles, one of Berio’s most famous compositions, stood as the highlight.

Berio composed Circles for his wife, singer Cathy Berberian, to perform experimental vocalizations–a source in his electronic music–in a live setting with an ensemble of harp and two percussionists.

The title derives from the piece’s arch-form setting of E. E. Cummings’ poetry. For the first and fifth movements, the Berio set the poet’s “stinging.” The second and fourth treat “riverly is the flower.” And the central and longest movement features the text, in Cummings’ graphic writing, “n(o)w the how dis(appeared cleverly)world.”

Soprano Jennifer Ashe, with a pristine tone, brought a hint of warmth to Berio’s spiky vocal lines, closed-mouth hums, and flashy mix of Sprechstimme and song.

In the second movement, percussionists Nick Tolle and Mike Williams answered Ashe with fine touches on wood blocks, timpani, xylophone, and tom-toms. Harpist Franziska Huhn provided a sweet accompaniment to the music’s softer spots.

Circles is as much performance art as it is a concert work, which was especially evident in the third movement, where the percussionists literally spun around in circles to perform their clamorous parts. Ashe, meanwhile, moved to different spots on stage, occasionally spinning around herself to vocalize rhythmic patterns to the musicians placed behind her. Elsewhere in the work, Ashe performed as conductor and percussionist on claves and wind chimes.

To open, conductor Jeffrey Means led Sound Icon musicians in Liza Lim’s Shimmer Songs for string quartet, harp, and percussion trio.

As the composer noted, the piece explores techniques of Australian Aboriginal (Yolngu) painting, particularly the use of shimmering cross-hatches in different colors called bin’yun.

Shimmer Songs, though, did much more than shimmer. The string quartet engaged in surfeit glissandos, tremolos, and prickling col legno strikes while the harpist and percussionists–playing guiro, gongs, and reco-reco– created a wash of sound. Throughout, the musicians played with dynamic energy.

Leon Kirchner’s Concerto for violin, cello, ten winds, and percussion made use of more traditional timbres.

Cast in two movements, Kirchner’s concerto of 1960 (the same year Berio completed Circles) bears the imprint of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok in its dense orchestration and punchy rhythms. And Kirchner crafted many aria-like phrases within the concerto’s sharp-edged atonal language.

The sweetness of violinist Gabriela Diaz’s sound brought shape to the lines. To complement, cellist Robert Mayes supplied heavier, darker tone. Both musicians performed soaring lines over fitful blasts from the winds.

Despite the adagio tempo, the second movement contains a great deal of driving rhythms. And here, Sound Icon winds and percussion provided sharply-played counterpoint to the strings’ stirring phrases. Means, at the helm, kept the music moving steadily and energetically.

Bruno Maderna’s Giardino Religioso for chamber orchestra, two pianos, and percussion made for an interesting closer.

The work is a panorama of color and a garden left, in part, to grow on its own. Musicians are called to perform some parts as written and, at other times, passages of their own choosing. Means donned plenty of hats here, conducting and performing on the celesta and conga drum.

Giardino Religioso opened with a collage of spiky free-form phrases in the strings. In similar fashion, pianists Barbara Lieurance and Aaron Likness matched a series of bubbling chords with delicate touch. Tolle and Williams answered with sensitively played toms and timpani strokes. The parts coalesced into a whirlwind of sound. As the trumpets added edgy fanfares, the music grew thicker and ever frantic. The tension broke into a sparse moments of slapped harp strings and shrills from piano strings rubbed long ways for a banshee-like effect.

To close, Giardino Religioso returned listeners to the sonorities of the concert’s opening. Shimmering high strings rendered a slow contemplative phrase that did not break intensity under the final sharp trumpet blasts as the piece’s unexpected conclusion.

Sound Icon will perform works by Gunther Schuller, Lee Hyla, Karola Obermuller, Barbara White, along with Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto, with pianist Paavali Jumppanen and harpsichordist Yoko Hagino, 8 p.m. Saturday at Paine Hall.

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