Oboe Overload

The oboe is one of those instruments rarely heard outside the context of orchestral music. But this expressive instrument got a moment in the spotlight Friday night (Feb. 12). The International Contemporary Ensemble held a concert called “Oboe Overload” at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, featuring ICE’s two oboists, Nick Masterson and James Austin Smith.

ICE specializes in performing new and avant-garde music, and Friday’s concert was no exception. Masterson and Smith opened with Christian Wolff’s 1964 composition “for 1, 2, or 3 people,” which included foot stomping and scraping noises made with music stands in addition to frantic bursts of oboe melody. I was wondering what the sheet music looked like, and after the performance, Smith showed the audience a page — covered with a variety of graphic symbols, like some sort of coded puzzle.

The concert also included Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza VIIa,” Bradley Balliett’s “Slow-Burning Sarabande” (a world premiere, with the composer in attendance), Jonathan Harvey’s “Ricercare una melodia” and Michael Finnissy’s “Yso.” Named after a form of dance, Balliett’s “Slow-Burning Sarabande” was too abstract to provoke any actual dancing, but it colorfully captured the sense of two voices flirting with and seducing each other. Harvey’s composition, meanwhile, used electronic delay to play around with the idea of memory. The oboists seemed to be chasing after their own notes, trying to grasp melodies as they flitted away.

Throughout all of these challenging pieces, Masterson and Smith played with a sense of spontaneity and fierce intensity. www.iceorg.org

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