Present Meets Past: Oberlin CME and ICE at DiMenna Center

I don’t think there is any other place in the world quite like the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Its unique atmosphere of collaboration, support, and experimentation sparks innovation that creates space for all kinds of eccentrics to gather and make great music. As an Oberlin grad, I had some anxiety about writing a review of the Oberlin  Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME) with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) concert on January 18, 2013 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. What if my memory of playing in CME was too idealized, tainted by nostalgia? What if I was expecting too much? After seeing the concert, my conclusion is that you can take the ensemble out of Oberlin, but you can’t take the Oberlin magic out of the ensemble. The DiMenna Center was flooded with the spirit of Obies past and present, and their performance was sublime.

Violin soloist David Bowlin (photo credit: Will Roane)

The most impressive piece of the evening was Luciano Berio’s Corale, played with unparalleled musicality and virtuosic accuracy by founding ICE member, Oberlin alumnus, and Oberlin Professor of Violin David Bowlin. Based on his Sequenza VIII, Berio re-orchestrated this version to include a string orchestra and two horns as accompaniment to the violin soloist. The structure of Corale centers around one pitch (played often simultaneously on three strings by the violin soloist), and building clusters around that pitch. In the solo version, the harmony is limited by the technical possibilities of the violin. The version that was presented here was rich in both responsive harmonies to the violin part, as well as predictive ones such as speedy flourishes. These virtuosic imitations of the violin solo line were particularly well executed by concertmaster Eliot Heaton and principal cellist Eric Tinkerhess. The orchestra alternated between rhythmic intensity and colorful, insectile swarms, providing a harmonic context and texture. Bowlin’s playing sang, whispered, skittered and screamed through it all with great versatility of sound, cutting above the orchestra even in his most intimate moments.

Nearly as thrilling as the Berio was the world premiere of The Tempest, composed by the inimitable John Zorn. It was performed with more than your average degree of gusto by ICE members Claire Chase on flute, Joshua Rubin on clarinet, and Nathan Davis on drums. The feel of the piece transitioned flawlessly back and forth between something like high energy experimental free jazz and quiet, reflective atonal counterpoint, and most everything in between. Chase and Rubin played off of each other as if they were improvising, supported by some of the gnarliest sounding drum kit writing I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness, executed in all its spastic glory by Davis. I’m not sure that there are any other three performers in the world who could have given this piece such a convincing performance, but I hope that it will stay in the repertoire long enough for me to be proven wrong.

ICE flutist, CEO, and Artistic Director Claire Chase (photo credit: Will Roane)

Altar of Two Serpents for two alto flutes, by recent conservatory alumnus Mario Diaz de León, opened the program. Claire Chase, who is also CEO and  Artistic Director of ICE, was joined by Oberlin Professor Alexa Still. The two stood facing each other in a dramatically staged antiphonal battle. The pitch material was centered around one note for much of the piece, creating a trance-like and (fittingly) serpentine quality. This piece set the tone for the entire first half of the program, which had a theme of single pitch centricity.

Oberlin Professor Tom Lopez’s Lament for Réjà Vu was another mesmerizing composition. This piece was accompanied by video art projected on a large screen that reached almost to the high ceiling of the DiMenna Center, with images of nature such as the shadow of a leaf curling up in water, insects moving along the surface of a pond, a field of squash. The idea of the piece was to express the opposite of Déjà Vu; rather than the feeling of something having happened before, Réjà Vu is the feeling that something will happen again. Both the video and the slowly undulating music worked towards expressing this idea. Mezzo-soprano Nicole Levesque did an admirable job of blending with the instrumentalists behind her, creating subtle timbral differences that slowly shifted to match the imagery behind them.

Oberlin visiting Professor Eric Wubbels’ alphabeta featured a mixed ensemble of ICE members Ross Karre and Jacob Greenberg (both Oberlin alumni) and CME players Sean Dowgray and Ann Schaefer, who played together with focus and intensity. The real interest of the piece is in the way Wubbels deals with resonance, often writing loud attacks in unison from two instruments that have very different decay patterns (such as piano and cymbal, for example). The duration of timbres was sometimes quite different, either because of natural decay or dampening, which made for quite interesting “hybrid instruments” with unique timbral arcs.

The balance of the program offered contrasts: Oberlin Professor of Composition David Lang’s sweet air and Oberlin alumni Christopher Rouse’s Compline. Sweet air, a piece about a laughing gas induced high at the dentist, only really works when the ensemble feels a deep groove together. This group didn’t quite lock in, although they did accomplish a lightness that was refreshing after the heaviness of the earlier pieces. In Compline the performers didn’t always push the phrases to their full expression. But despite the lack of constant attention-grabbing, it ended on quite a beautiful note with a lyrical and slow moving section in the strings, eventually passed throughout the entire group.

I left the DiMenna Center feeling elated. CME and ICE exceeded my (extremely high) expectations, putting together a concert that inspired and challenged me. I couldn’t be more proud of my alma mater, and of all the Oberlin students, faculty, and alumni who choose to dedicate their time to the pursuit of such wonderful music-making.

NYC-based violinist Marina Kifferstein, a graduate of Oberlin College and Conservatory, is an active performer and is pursuing a Masters degree in Contemporary Performance at the Manhattan School of Music.