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By Anthony Tommasini
One of the biggest “Who could have imagined?” flashes I have had in a long time came during the concert by the impressive International Contemporary Ensemble on Monday night at the Rose Theater. Here, as a highlight of this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival, was a top-notch contemporary-music ensemble, under the brilliant direction of the fast-rising French conductor Ludovic Morlot, in a program featuring three audaciously modern scores by three living composers. The hall was packed; the audience gave cheering ovations to each work.
Back in the 1990s, when the festival was an increasingly irrelevant enterprise presenting routine run-throughs of boring programs, who could have imagined that the Mostly Mozart brand would be affixed to such an exhilarating concert?
Louis Langrée, the conductor who became the music director of Mostly Mozart in 2002, and Jane Moss, the artistic director, deserve every bit of praise they have received in recent summers for revitalizing the festival. But the specific credit for Monday’s program goes to the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the curator for Bach and the Polyphonies, the adventurous six-part series that ended with this thoughtful concert.
Using works by Bach as a focus, Mr. Aimard’s programs explored the technique of polyphonic writing by looking backward to the sources of polyphony (or counterpoint) in medieval and Renaissance music and to contemporary practitioners like the three formidable composers presented here: George Benjamin, Harrison Birtwistle and Helmut Lachenmann.
Though counterpoint is a term used all the time in talking about music, many people do not really understand it. It simply refers to music written in multiple, overlapping, independent voices.
Mr. Aimard loves assembling programs that juxtapose new and old music in ways that invite audiences to hear musical commonalities. He began with the short, somber Fantasia VII by Purcell, performed here in an ingenious arrangement by Mr. Benjamin for clarinet, violin, cello and celesta (played by Mr. Aimard). Mr. Benjamin’s recasting of the music highlights the mix of lacy counterpoint and haunting harmonies.
The performance was an ideal setup for the next work, Mr. Benjamin’s 20-minute “Antara.” He composed it in the mid-1980s while working at Ircam, the electronic-music center in Paris, where a band of Andean folk musicians often played in the square outside. Mr. Benjamin was entranced by the sounds of the panpipes. (“Antara” is the Incan name for that folk instrument.)
He uses two digital keyboards to evoke the panpipes, and the large chamber ensemble includes other dueling pairs of instruments. In this context the work came across as music driven by overlapping, interacting contrapuntal lines. The leap from Purcell to Mr. Benjamin, and back, seemed not that far.
Next came two short pieces from Mr. Birtwistle’s “Bach Measures,” arrangements of eight chorale preludes for organ by Bach, as a mood-setting prelude for Mr. Birtwistle’s complex, arrestingly visceral “Slow Frieze.” In this 1996 work he tries to evoke in music the effect of seeing a series of ancient friezes, bas-relief panels that seem to convey movement as you walk by. Beginning with staggered bursts of chords for a solo piano (played incisively by Jacob Greenberg), the music evolves in chunks of sound that on the surface seem to be static blocks but quiver with activity within.
The third pairing began with Luciano Berio’s arrangement of the final Countrapunctus from Bach’s “Art of the Fugue.” This was Bach’s last work, left incomplete. Most performances just stop cold where Bach’s score breaks off. Berio ends his wondrously colorful arrangement by having the instruments trail off into some realm of the beyond.
This piece served as a prelude for Mr. Lachenmann’s stunning “Mouvement ( — vor der Erstarrung”). The parenthetical phrase translates as “before paralysis” or “before stillness.” This tense, skittish and pointillist piece from the early 1980s is like a series of dialogues in fits and starts for a large ensemble of instruments, grouped by category and separated onstage. The allure of the music comes from the strikingly inventive writing for the instruments, using unconventional techniques like tapping on clarinets and blowing into them without the mouthpieces, and all manner of string glissandos and scratches.
It was recently announced that Mr. Morlot would become the next music director of the Seattle Symphony, starting in 2011, following, as it happens, Gerard Schwarz, formerly a director of the Mostly Mozart Festival during good years and bad. Seattle is getting a first-class musician in this accomplished young conductor.