The Fonda/Stevens Group at 92YTribeca
John Cage's "How to Get Started" at Symphony Space

"What Must Be Said" at The Cell

by Angela Sutton

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Ensemble π performed to a full house at the Cell on Saturday night, presenting new and rarely heard music in collaboration with the Great Small Works theater company.

“What Must Be Said,” the ensemble’s seventh Concert for Peace, drew its title from a Günter Grass work read during the evening. Fitting the theme, much of the concert had an explicit sociopolitical underpinning and attempted to link current affairs to art music.

The performance opened with Susan Botti’s Lament: The Fallen City, for violin and piano. The only large work on the program without an attached narrative, it was melancholy sound painting in a series of wailing fragments, using a variety of effective nontraditional violin techniques.

Composer and Ensemble π member Kristin Norderval’s Three Character Sketches followed, drawn from an in-progress opera on the life of Patricia Isasa, a victim of state-sponsored abduction and torture in Argentina. These excerpts used an eclectic ensemble of strings, percussion, piano, guitar, accordion, and electronics, capable of transitions between highly charged art music and gentle folkiness. Although musically pleasant, the first two sketches were undone by the libretto, particularly the first (a depiction of Isasa before her abduction, dreaming of architecture), with its plucky-Broadway-heroine naiveté. The last sketch, however, was devastatingly effective, depicting Isasa as an adult and showcasing Norderval's considerable vocal talents in a wrenching tour-de-force.

Turning from anguish to wit, the program closed with works by Hanns Eisler, a German expat later run out of the US during the McCarthy era. The musicians shared the stage with Great Small Works’ puppet show, an amusingly quaint accompaniment to Eisler’s songs. As one might expect of a leftist associate of Bertolt Brecht, the songs wittily savaged midcentury capitalism. Ms. Norderval performed them in both English and German, giving the puppeteers time to develop visual narratives. The final notes came from Eisler’s Piano Sonata No. 3, a vigorous work that shares much with contemporaneous American art music.

Whether or not it will inspire political and social action, the concert nonetheless succeeded abundantly as a purely musical experience, presenting meaty works conscientiously.

Ensemble π next performs at Symphony Space later this winter.

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