La tournée Américaine de l'ensemble Zellig
Créations mondiales à San Francisco.
It would have been hard to predict going in, but Sunday afternoon's contemporary music concert by Ensemble ZELLIG - a program of short, sparse chamber pieces performed by a group little known outside its native France - turned out to be one of the most rewarding events of the year.
Presented by Cal Performances in an underpopulated Hertz Hall, this dynamic quartet ran through six delicate and evocative scores in just over 90 intermissionless minutes. Each was lovelier and more fascinating than the one before, and the splendor of the group's execution only added to the program's delight. Encore, please?
Things started in the right direction with Philippe Hersant's "Five Miniatures" for alto flute, played with rich tone and rhythmic precision by flutist Anne-Cécile Cuniot. These were virtuoso displays of compositional craft, each one showing how to turn a single instrumental line into a brief and formally clear musical essay.
The opener included enough melodic repetition to guide a first-time listener firmly through its argument; another made deft use of multiphonics (playing two pitches at once), and the finale raced along in witty, abrupt phrases.
Hersant was also represented by "Six Bagatelles," a similar collection of wonderfully pointed sketches, performed by clarinetist Etienne Lamaison, cellist Silvia Lenzi and pianist Jonas Vitaud. The same players gave a brilliant account of Don Freund's trio "Crunch Time," which begins with a pugnacious assault of dissonances only to mellow into a fluid, though still crusty, melody over rocky accompaniment figures.
Philippe Leroux's "PPP," for flute and piano, started with a bang but overstayed its welcome. For sheer beauty and emotional richness, it would be hard to top Gerald Shapiro's "Change and End," a duet for clarinet and cello written in memory of the composer's mother.
This turned out to be another catalog of six short character pieces, all of them marked by graceful phrasing, a close weave of instrumental voices and a Brahmsian air of autumnal reflection. But the most elaborate work on the program, and in many ways its climax, was "Auditory Fiction," an ingenious piece by UC Berkeley composer Edmund Campion that involved all four instrumentalists along with some newly developed computer software. That software fed a rhythmic "click track" into the ear of each performer, so that they were playing related, or even identical, musical material at slightly different speeds.
The result was that the players would float in and out of sync with each other at various points - coming together at a structural landmark, then veering off again. This is the sort of thing that can easily become indecipherable if the composer falls too much in love with his tools. But Campion keeps clarity and even beauty at the fore - the harmonic language is simple, and the metrical variations just subtle enough to keep a listener engaged.
The results were remarkable.