As distracting as it might be to see two star composers onstage—one of whom is the most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize—21st-century musicians who have chosen entrepreneurship over academic security need to butter their bread somehow. Fortunately, Caleb Burhans and Caroline Shaw are also violinists of outsized talent, as they showed last night at Symphony Space while performing with American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), just one of several moonlighting gigs for both composers.
ACME (now in its 10th season) is led by cellist Clarice Jensen, who sets the programming for the flexible-size ensemble, which can range from one to eight players depending on the needs at hand. Last night's concert was devoted to the chamber music of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, who would have been 100 in January, and his disciple Steven Stucky, a Pulitzer winner in his own right. Jensen gave powerful, fully committed performances of two solo works—Lutoslawski's Sacher Variation and Stucky's Dialoghi—that revealed her to be a cellist not only of incredible energy, but of deep, probing insight. Rarely have I seen a cellist go after it the way Clarice did last night.
Stucky, who was present last night, spoke at length with Symphony Space Artistic Director Laura Kaminsky about Lutoslawski's influence as a composer and the impact he had on his own music. "I first encountered his music at a Dallas Symphony concert in 1969," he said. "It was a Road to Damascus moment: he had already written the music I hoped to write decades on. Right then, I knew we were kindred spirits."
Clarice was joined by Caleb, Caroline, and violist Nadia Sirota for Stucky and Lutoslawski's string quartets. Stucky's quartet, called In Shadow, In Light, was marked by multiple personalities, both triadic ("light") and chromatic ("shadow"). Lutoslawski's, by comparison, was far more radical, employing a fully notated score for each of the four players combined with chance techniques that determined elements of rhythm and texture. All four performers played with an intensity and passion that seemed well beyond their years. Then again, if folks like the Times are to be believed, 30-something seems to be the new nexus of energy and intelligence we should all hold as our musical ideal.