The two-night, two-concert summary of Edgard Varèse’s music at the Lincoln Center Festival was that rarest form of musical outings: an honest-to-goodness event. About thirty, maybe more, people were waiting for returned tickets at Monday night’s Alice Tully Hall concert featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble with Steven Schick, and the New York Philharmonic’s concert the next evening was likewise sold out. Arty Brooklyn kids made the trip, alongside your expected new-music veterans, regular subscribers, the art-house demimondaines, and the remaining members of the Frank Zappa cult. Whatever the festival, ICE, and the Philharmonic did to promote this, do it again. The brawny, macho, dissonant, clangorous music of Varèse is one of classical music’s bizarre cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac?) that has its admirers and its zealots, with virtually no one who merely tolerates it. Maybe that’s all who were there last week, but it felt more like the crowd for a universally acclaimed modern master.
Monday’s concert began with Poème Èlectronique, Varèse’s audacious electronic piece from 1958, with its ghostly wails and industrial air. Then it was back to pre-War (pre-two world wars, really) France for the song Un Grand Sommeil Noir, featuring soprano Anu Komsi in the first display of her jaw-dropping technique. This brief, Debussy-esque art song contained all the proof needed to show off how deeply indebted to Debussy Varèse was early on. He called Debussy the “fantastic chemist” whose “economy of means and clarity, and the intensity he achieved through them” showed him one possible route forward.
ICE and So Percussion then moved through four Varèse scores of the more-familiar variety from the early 1920′s to 1934: Hyperprism, Offrandes, Intègrales, and Ecuatorial. Their collective virtuosity in these breathtakingly intricate works and the unity and precision they maintained were probably to be expected, but, all the same, it was stunning to hear. Steven Schick’s discipline and spontaneity is one of the better-kept secrets, and I’d love to hear him conduct someone other than ICE (though that’s of course it’s own treat). The bass-baritone Alan Held, who I last heard as a moving Jochanaan in Lyric Opera’s Salome, gave a sumptuous reading of the Spanish text of Ecuatorial, drawn from the Popol Vuh.
The other truly awesome aspect of these pieces was from having So Percussion serving as the percussion section. Usually when you hear Varèse, no matter how great the group, there’s one cymbal-player or gong-beater who’s out in left field and not getting it. These guys were entirely on the same page, and worked as a real unit. This was real instrumental section-playing of the kind we usually reserve for talking about the brass or the strings. Really, really superb.
The twin highlights of the second half were the Étude pour Espace, completed by Chou Wun-chung in 2009, and the solo flute Density 21.5. Kent Tritle’s chorus Musica Sacra were amplified and the orchestra amplified, too, and then “spatialized” throughout the hall. Musica Sacra gamely went through the ominous-sounding texts by Kenneth Patchen, Vincent Huidebro (in Spanish), and another Spanish line from St. John of the Cross. These were combined with Varèse’s own inventions, his “syllables of intensity,” nonsense sounds which come across like an amped-up, more sinister chorus Berlioz could only lunge at for the end of The Damnation of Faust, with his own made-up language. In that same piece, Anu Komsi astounded everyone when she sailed up to an insanely high note, one of those “I did not know people could do that” notes, then held it for a seeming eternity.
Of Density 21.5, the best way to summarize Claire Chase’s performance is to say that the near-ovation she received when first walking onstage was entirely deserved. The naturalness, the poise, the excitement; with all of that in place, it’s difficult to imagine a better performance. The quote in the title is from Ferrucio Busoni’s Sketch of a new Esthetic of Music, which influenced Varèse deeply and which he naturally admired. Schick, ICE, and the other musicians at this concert gave us all a great big window to look at Varèse’s notion of musical freedom.