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Music Review

They Help to Attune Our Ears to the Future

The Ensemble Intercontemporain nurtures new sounds. In concert, conductor David Robertson makes them irresistible.


The Ensemble Intercontemporain was created 23 years ago with a special kind of French hubris--the notion that the right combination of money, brains, talent and vision could actually restore a sense of musical order to a chaotic world. Pierre Boulez, bruised but hardly defeated by a half-dozen years at the helm of the New York Philharmonic and the philistine attitudes of an audience that proclaimed his brand of lustrous Modernism all but dead, gambled on Paris once more becoming a dazzling musical capital. He founded a research institute and assembled 31 virtuoso soloists with the mission of advancing music. A culture-minded government opened its coffers.

There has, of course, been no stopping the decline of musical Modernism, what with the rebirth of tonality, the triumphs of Minimalism, the renewed interest in Romanticism and the all-around eclecticism of the late 20th century. But this ensemble and its affiliated new music lab, known by its French acronym, IRCAM, have nonetheless done an extraordinary amount to keep music ultramodern and evolve its technology. The Ensemble Intercontemporain thrives: It has commissioned more than 100 new pieces, premiered twice that number and performed some 1,400 pieces of modern music in less than a quarter-century.

So it was but the tiniest fraction of its accomplishment that it revealed Sunday afternoon, when the ensemble appeared at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall with its current music director, David Robertson. But it was enough to open a window onto the future.

Philippe Hurel's "Six Miniatures en Trompe l'Oeil" from the early 1990s was an example of just what IRCAM and the Ensemble Intercontemporain have been up to. The composer, who was born in 1955, is part of the IRCAM-inspired school of spectral music, in which computers are used to calculate acoustical effects of certain tones and create new sonic equations. This is arrestingly complex music, but it is so complex that it goes beyond technology. The notes and noises become like individual atoms, no longer of concern by themselves but very interesting in the shapes into which they can be molded.

Hurel's miniatures turn into fluid, dramatic gestures as these whirling musical atoms combine into ever-changing patterns. The notes, too, in two short Boulez works, "Derive 2 & 1," were plentiful and ridiculously difficult to analyze. But the broad gestures are apparent as the music accumulates energy or sings a convoluted song.

A new work, "Xi," by Berlin-based Korean composer Unsuk Chin, used technology both in conception and realization. She works with something called granular synthesis, in which a computer deconstructs smooth tone into infinitesimal particles; yet here, too, one heard not just a kind of brave new sonic world but also large gestures. With instruments and multichannel tape interacting, her long (at 23 minutes, too long) score followed the predictable pattern of breathy electronic sound to specific tones and back again.

Also on the program was Elliott Carter's Clarinet Concerto, written two years ago for the Ensemble Intercontemporain and its clarinetist Alain Damiens, and already something of a repertory work (a performance by the Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne from Montreal gave its local premiere in the fall). The performance this time was spectacular. Every little detail in a score jampacked with them seemed just right. There might be room for more whimsy than Damiens' very cool and calculated playing revealed, but it was a splendid transparent reading nonetheless.

And, thanks to Robertson, a human one. Robertson is a marvel, and it has taken far too long for this conductor from Santa Monica to return home. He has a Boulezian technical brilliance and a protean musical mind. He has conducted "Rigoletto" at San Francisco Opera and "Carmen" at the Metropolitan Opera, and it showed Sunday in his ability to make theatrically vivid, dauntingly sophisticated abstract music. He spoke to the audience for an hour after the concert and was hilarious. Next season, he leaves the Ensemble Intercontemporain to become music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, while American orchestras keep looking the other way in their music director searches. It appears the French really do know better.

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