Last night, I was at the closing concert of this year’s Cresc… Biennale, a festival for contemporary music in the Frankfurt am Main area. It was my first time experiencing Ensemble Modern, Germany’s leading new music ensemble, at a live performance. On the programme were five premieres by young composers participating in Ensemble Modern’s composition seminar (organised by the International Ensemble Modern Academy), each responding to the topic of ‘transit’, the festival’s loose overall theme.
The five composers took up this theme in creative and contrasting ways, but sometimes producing mixed results. I found the opening work, Matej Bonin’s Shimmer II, difficult to get into. While there were some nice timbral highlights and a wacky extended clarinet solo, it had little structure and failed to really engage me. Malte Giesen’s Surrogat/Extension interpreted the theme on the level of identity in transit or transition and did this in the form of a ‘double concerto’ for piano and electronic keyboard, the ‘original’ or older instrument meeting its ‘copy’, according to the composer’s description. This idea was explored well; the solo voices were at times cooperative, at times warring, with the keyboard frequently interrupting and manipulating the piano’s sound.
I particularly enjoyed Ole Hübner’s Drei Menschen, im Hintergrund Hochhäuser und Palmen und links das Meer for live electronics and amplified ensemble. Hübner mashed together fragments of recorded speech, field recordings from Beijing and Istanbul and snippets of folky fiddle music, making for an vivid and intense sound collage or piece of ‘auditory theatre’ (‘Hörtheater’), as he describes it. The final two works put Ensemble Modern’s famed versatility to the test. Vladimir Gorlinsky’s slightly unconvincing ‘sound performance’ had them screaming into gongs and wandering around the stage investigating a range of different sound sources. In the concluding work, Andreas Eduardo Frank’s How to pronounce Alpha, the ensemble were confronted with quite a complex choreography of arm and hand gestures, all performed with admirable dedication. Complete with beatboxing percussionists and a quirky stage arrangement (all the typical solo instruments were placed in the back row), Frank’s deconstruction of ensemble hierarchies was a witty, entertaining end to the evening.