Ives Ensemble

Ives Ensemble

On Thursday March 5th 2009 I took the day off from work and drove north to Canada to see the Ives Ensemble.  They’d been brought into Canada by  Contiuum Contemporary Music for their SHIFT Festival of Canadian and Dutch music.  Having a largish group flown in from the Netherlands for a festival seems a bit extravagant so working with various Canadian arts organizations they scheduled a few more dates across Canada.  Vancouver New Music was one of these organizations and they managed to bring them to Vancouver as part of their Sonic Tonic series for the final date of their tour.

VNM almost always has an “artist chat” an hour before their concerts and tonight was no exception.  I managed to make it to the ScotiaBank Dance Centre just a few minutes after 7pm and about 5 minutes before the chat began. The entire ensemble was in a semi-circle of chairs in the front of a dance studio complete with an entire mirrored wall. VNM director Giorgio Magnanensi, who is now sporting a great and wild beard, began by asking them the details of their tour.  Most of the questions were fielded by John Snijders, the founder of the ensemble, but at various times several of the members would chime in.  They spoke of the SHIFT Festival and how it commissioned new works from Canadian and Dutch composers and about the concerts and workshops they did in Toronto.  This sounded like a very interesting cultural exchange and I think a very positive type of event for new music, especially in the commissioning and performing of new works.  The Canadian composer they chose for the commission was Allison Cameron and Giorgio told us an anecdote about him getting flack from the CBC for programming her music in a festival back when she was a lot less well known. There was also a series of questions from the audience about female composers and their level of representation.   On the question of female representation John gave what I think is the most sensible answer: it all comes down to the quality of the composition, there is no issue w/r/t the sex of the composer. This led to several questions about compositions written especially for them and John told us that they rarely get unsolicited compositions mainly because they are very picky on what they choose to play. He then brought up that when playing festivals the programmers really want “World Premiers” and that this leads to an issue where a piece is often only played that one time, as after that performance they need the next world premier.  He said that for them they have found that many pieces benefit from repeat performance:

“Returning to a piece you find that it has become a part of you – comfortable.”

One of the other members then chimed in to say that playing a piece many times is “Honest to the piece” and that it matures and you discover more. This sparked a question from the audience about which pieces tonight were particularly “well played” pieces and they answered that the Viola in my Life was but not the other Feldman, the Xenakis was a newer piece for them and obviously the the Cameron was being a commission. But the rest of them they had played many times, greater then ten times each.  All in all a very interesting chat, very interesting to hear about the various experiences that working in an ensemble like this engenders.

About a half an hour after the chat ended the concert began just a little but after 7pm.  I had scored a seat front row center and the acoustics at this distance was pretty incredible, I could hear all the nuences of the instruments loud and clear.  The first set began with Straight Lines in Broken Times composed by Christopher Fox.  This piece is I believe what they call “post-minimalism”, in that it is made up of fragments of many different styles and was scored for piano, clarinet and violin.  While segments of it were made up of almost Glass-like short repeated phrases others evoked classicism and still others evoked various folk traditions with one bit having a distinctly Klezmer-ish sound. The most interesting part of this piece was a section where the clarinet dropped out, then a couple of minutes later the violin leaving just solo piano for a few measures before they came back in.  Not really my kind of thing, but it aptly demonstrated the skill and touch of the ensemble.  They left the stage and then these three, plus a cellist came back out to play the first of four Postcards by Allison Cameron.  This composition, Four Postcards, was designed to be played in as part of a program and each of them was stylistically diverse and only a couple of minutes long. I came to wonder if they were actually written for this specific program as they seemed stylistic informed by the other pieces.  Like the Fox the first Postcard was rapid little fragments from the quartet, each of them working little independent rhythmic structures.  There was very short violin solo in which it played longer tones in contrast to the rest of the piece. I wasn’t very taken by this piece either and I was becoming a bit depressed. Fortunately the Feldman piece that followed restored my spirits, though at around 8 minutes left me wanting.  Four Instruments (1975) is scored for the same quartet as Feldmans final piece, Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello and has much of the same feel as that piece. It was amazing to watch the ensemble settle down, almost visible changing gears as shifted into Feldman mode.  The vibrato was gone, the bow strokes flat and affectless, piano notes suspended. Really fantastic and when it ended so soon I felt a sense of loss. How I wish this set had been just a performance of Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello.  This was followed by the second Postcard, which was very similar to the first, made of short little energetic fragments from the same line up of instruments. This time though there was a short piano solo as opposed to the violin, but like that it was less frenetic then the rest of the piece.  The final piece of this set was Gerald Barry’s  Piano Quartet nr. 1 scored for piano, violin, viola and ‘cello. This piece was incredibly frenetic, the only piece that had to have a page turner for the violist (primarily, also turned a page or two for the ‘cellist) and also the longest of this set.  Frankly I didn’t enjoy it at all, it just seemed like an exercise in excess.  Fast repeated, short sounds broken up by various, equally fast solo sections.  There were a number of folk reference; an almost ragtime piano and the piece concluded with a very direct nod to Irish reels and jigs (though the ensemble didn’t really nail the trad ornamentation).  The musicians didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves much as they played the piece, but this is one of the pieces they often play.

There was followed by intermission, in which I had a cup of red wine and took a look at the CDs the ensemble had brought with them. Alas they didn’t have any of the hat[Now]ART CDs that are OOP, all the ones they had were readily available and were quite expensive.  Shortly thereafter I was back in my seat for the second half of the concert which opened with the third Postcard. This was my favorite of the Postcards and the one were I began to suspect that these were tied to this specific program (or perhaps for the Ives Ensembles typical repertoire).  It was for the same instruments with bass clarinet replacing the standard clarinet. It began with long mournful ‘cello lines that was then joined with longer tones from the bass clarinet.  This piece had a much more Feldman-esque feel then the frantic insect-like nature of her earlier postcards.  It wasn’t all long slow lines though, the piano added a nice bit of spiky counterpoint to these as did the ‘cellist at one point by plucking his strings.  The Viola in My Life 2 followed and was by far the highlight of the evening. Once again the ensemble shifted into slow gear and once again displayed their incredible touch for this music.  The violist was of course front and center, standing up for this piece, and was joined by the violin, clarinet, flute, percussionist and the pianist on celesta. It was fascinating to watch this piece, which I’m quite familiar with, unfold, the percussionist gentle shaking stuff in his hands at first then later gentle tapping a snare with his hands and occasionally bring out a few notes on the vibraphone.  The celesta was rarely used, almost like another percussion instrument, adding a single ringing chord every so often to sublime effect.  The viola of course was front and center with its mournful melodic phrase brought in again and again in various permutations.  Really wonderful, again I longed for a whole evening of Feldman from this ensemble.  This piece brought the greatest audience reaction including a spontaneous “Bravo!” from one of the members.  The violist got an extra, well deserved, round of applause.  The group returned for the final Postcard with the same lineup as the last but this time there were two additional performers carrying books and candles. They lit their candles and sat on the floor on either side of the musicians.  After initial longer tones (the solo as it were) from the bass clarinet the group played short little fragments, but they were soft and sedate sort of in-between the styles of the first and third. These little segments were clearly to be played and repeated as long as the readers kept reading. They blew out their candles, first the reader on the right and then a minute or two later the reader on the left, as they finished whatever prescribed bit of reading they had to do and then the piece ended. This was my second favorite of the Postcards a really nice sounding piece with a clever bit of indeterminacy. The final piece was Plektó composed by Iannis Xenakis for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin and ‘cello.  I’ve heard a decent amount of Xenakis’s chamber works but this piece was new to me. Like a lot of his pieces it was pretty aggressive and bombastic. The percussion was a big floor tom, a huge bass drum and little tom-toms and these were heavily worked. The piano was also literally pounded and at one point there was a near call and response between the piano and drums. The other instruments created this swirling miasma of long tones often creating dissonance and almost beating tones between them.  The piece was right on the edge I felt, a lot of the drum work was almost cheesy but the dissonances and the contrasts between the various elements kept my attention. It was definitely an exciting specticle to see live.  This concluded the set and they ensemble left to much applause.

Eventually waving away the appluse, John Snijders introduced the encore, Langzame Verjaardag (slow birthday) which was a piece written by Louis Andriessen for the groups 20th Anniversery.  This piece featured all of the ensemble but Snijders who stood off to one side. He descibred the piece as a “canon in unison where each member can enter at will”.  This piece was really nice, slow long tones, unfolding and overlapping and eventually fading away as each member finished their part. Eventually it was just the flautist who played three or four phrases before he to was done. A really nice ending to a great evening of music.