Classic Romanticism at the Mostly Mozart Festival
Gotham Chamber Opera Steadfastly Carries On

Mostly Mozart: ICE Plays Anna Thorvaldsdottir at Park Avenue Armory

by Robert Leeper


The no longer new, new music revolution taking place within the Mostly Mozart Festival continued Tuesday night with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) performing three works by the enterprising Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. It was a study in delivering not just a concert, but an experience.

The second of three ICE performances in the Park Avenue Armory, it continued a thread of programming that, while not necessarily site specific, left you with the distinct feeling it couldn't be performed anywhere else. Flickering bulbs illuminated the intimate - if austere - Board of Officers Room. Acoustic and electronic sounds came from all corners, collided majestically in the center, and proceeded to resonate throughout the space.

Thorvaldsdottir's Shades of Silence, the first piece on the program, began not in the Officers Room, but in the hallway outside. The work, scored for violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord was a compendium of distant rattles and rustles, each exploring the furthest possibilities of these instruments. The harpsichord, used mostly as a percussion instrument, emerged as the focal point.

Without pause, the audience was ushered into the main room accompanied by soft, relentless percussion passed from the musicians in the hall to those in the room. The squeaking of the doors added a rippling energy, as did the sounds of the audience fumbling for seats. The ensuing piece, Into-Second Self, positioned horns, trombones, and percussion throughout the small space, their dense harmonies creating a feeling of intense claustrophobia while simultaneously giving great breadth to the music. Adding to the sense of ritual, the trombones slowly left the room as the piece came to a close, their sound fading down the hallway.

The true performance piece of the evening was In the Light of Air. The pulsing lights from the bare lightbulbs gave the audience a chance to breathe with the music, letting it wash over the room. Icelandic ornaments called klakabönd (“a bind of ice”), created by the Icelandic artist Svana Josepsdottir, matched the muted colors of the room and cast shifting, snowflake-shaped shadows on the walls.

Thorvaldsdottir’s music itself was overwhelmingly beautiful and huge in scope. Her slow tempos draw easy comparisons to the vast sonic landscapes of John Luther Adams, and the constantly evolving cadential figures bring to mind the dense polyphony of Béla Bartók's string quartets, with their scratched notes and bows across the bridge. There were also moments of intense lyricism, especially from Cory Smythe's muted piano and Nuiko Wadden’s harp, often working in concert with each other.

As the lights on the performers music stands were slowly turned off one by one, the room was plunged into darkness. Although the ensuing clapping and foot stomping was well deserved, it would have been nice to have had just a few seconds of silence following such a magisterial performance.