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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Concert Review: The Sound of the Northlands

Listening in Suomi at Scandinavia House. 
Parenthetically speaking: the members of counter)induction.
Monday night at Scandinavia House's underground Victor Borge Hall featured members of the chamber group counter)induction, playing works by contemporary Finnish composers Esa-Pekka Salonem, Jukka Tiensuu, Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg. 

Visitors to New York's concert halls might recognize some of those names:
  • Mr. Salonen is an international conductor, who also devotes considerable time to composition. 
  • Ms. Saariaho, Carnegie Hall's composer-in-residence is known for her spacious, austere soundscapes. 
  • Mr. Lindberg is completing his third year as the New York Philharmonic's composer-in-residence. 
All three are long-serving members of Finland's "Ears Open" movement, a resurgence of sonic creativity in that country.

Mr. Lindberg served as the emcee of the evening, introducing each work. He started by introducing the New York audience to the sound-world of Mr. Tiensuu, arguably the most obscure composer on the bill. Mr. Tiensuu's sound-world incorporates microtones--notes generated between those pitches on a standard scale--but does so in a unique way that recalls the complexities of baroque music. NOUS was a terse toccata, with repeated pounding rhythms and opportunities for virtuosity in its central waltz section. 

Next up was Homonculus for String Quartet by conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. As the title suggests, this was an intense piece of music. The two violins traded lines with the viola, over short, chopped rhythms that occasionally galloped or capered. constructed atop galloping cello rhythms that recalled another Finnish chamber ensemble: Apocalyptica. 

Similar, alchemical ideas infused Mr. Lindberg's Piano Trio, receiving its New York premiere in this concert. The Trio  was followed by the premiere of Mr. Lindberg's Clarinet Trio, with nimble playing from all three instruments. Mr. Lindberg laid out the thematic ideas in an opening "whirlpool." To build the second and third movements, the material was drawn from the bubbling cauldron, reshaped, and occasionally transmuted with fascinating results.

The second half of the program opened with Ms. Saariaho's Pres, a three-movement work for cello and electronic tones generated by an onstage MacBook Pro. . In a pre-concert interview Ms. Saariaho described an idea she had for an "endless" cello bow, the size of a large suspension bridge. She then moved to the computer station, working with 

It was not impossible to imagine that mega-instrument in the swoops and whooshes generated by the computer. Cellist Sumire Kido played with admirable focus, bringing the dreamy world of Ms. Saariaho's music to vivid life. The three movements incorporated natural and electronic sounds to accompany the cello, and a good balance was achieved in this unusual duet.

The concert concluded with Mr. Lindberg's Clarinet Quintet, a playful 20 minutes that, Liszt-like, packs the ideas of four seperate movements into one economical form. The five players tossed the theme back and forth rapidly, as if the musical ideas were too hot to handle. The most athletic playing here came from clarinetist Benjamin Fingland. Without the ability to play chords, the woodwind had to work twice as hard.

Beyond the actual notes, what made this performance work was the explosive energy built from Mr. Lindberg's taut rhythms and intertwining musical fragments. The work was clearly taxing on the musicians, but they were also enjoying the exchange of energy with eye gestures, shoulder movements and repeated leaps into the complex melodic fray. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.