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

ICE plays Saariaho

International Contemporary Ensemble — or ICE for short — played four pieces by Finnish avant-garde composer Kaija Saariaho Thursday (Nov. 19) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Based in both Chicago and New York, ICE champions new music, performing in a variety of lineups — Thursday’s concert included a solo percussion piece as well as compositions played by larger ensemble that was more like a chamber orchestra.

My favorite piece of the evening was the first (and most recently composed), “Terrestre.” Flute, harp, percussion, violin and cello notes skittered around one another in a delicate dance. Flutist Claire Chase somehow managed to sing and play flute at the same time during some passages. In “Six Japanese Gardens,” Nathan Davis ably demonstrated the variety of sounds and delicate patterns one can created with nothing but percussion. Well, not nothing — the piece also includes some electronic background tracks created by Saariaho, which Davis triggered by pedal.

The second half of the concert featured two pieces that Saariaho wrote for chamber ensembles with electronics — “Lichtbogen” (1986) and “Solar” (1992). The electronic textures and treatments were subtle, barely even noticeable at times, other than moments like the climax of “Lichtbogen,” when the notes reverbed and echoed in ways you don’t often hear at a classical concert. The music floated along, and it was easy to loose track of the passing time, as Chase pointed during an onstage interview with Saariaho. The amorphous quality of the compositions reminded me of Gyorgy Ligetti’s “Atmospheres,” although Saariaho’s tones are less ominous.

It was interesting to hear Saariaho answer Chase’s questions during their conversation before the concert’s intermission. Saariaho talked about how nature inspires her music — “the symmetry of leaves … and the endless variation within the symmetry.”

In parts of “Lichtbogen,” Saariaho instructs the players to make visceral sounds with their instruments, such as the noise of strings being scraped. “They are not noises for me,” Saariaho explained. “They’re associated with some of the most beautiful sounds that we know — wind and whispering. They are very intimate sounds for us.”

That sort of intimate sound made ICE’s Saariaho concert an unconventionally beautiful experience.

Claire Chase at Velvet Lounge

Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge on Cermak is a jazz club, but on Tuesday (Oct. 27), it hosted a contemporary classical music performance. Claire Chase, one of the founders of the International Contemporary Ensemble, stood alone on the stage with her flutes and made some otherworldly noises with those innocent-looking pipes. This was not your grandmother’s flute music. Chase was playing some of the pieces she performs on her new record, Aliento, as well as a few others. Although she was solo for most of the show, she was almost always accompanied by electronic sounds and textures. In some of the pieces, her notes and even the sounds of the keys clicking on her flutes echoed and reverbed back at her, creating alien soundscapes. Fellow ICE member Eric Lamb joined her onstage for Brazilian composer Marcos Balter’s piece “Edgewater,” and the two of them slowly moved in tandem from one side of the stage to the other as their notes danced around one another. Chase closed the show with Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for violin, using effects to transform it into a duet between “flute and gear.”

International Contemporary Ensemble and composer Kaija Saariaho will perform at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Museum of
Contemporary Art. www.mcachicago.org

Photos of Claire Chase.