The International Contemporary Ensemble dispatched four woodwind players for an evening of new music played with spirit, humor and spectacular musicianship.
It's not often that a Twin Cities crowd has its brains blown out by flutes and clarinets. But that's what happened Monday night at the Southern Theater when the International Contemporary Ensemble made its Minnesota debut.
Actually, we got a chip of ICE, not the entire, youthful, 30-member chamber orchestra with an ongoing presence in both New York and Chicago and a knack for garnering accolades from all over the planet.
The Southern show featured four woodwinds. Like clarinetists Campbell MacDonald and Joshua Rubin, flutists Claire Chase and Eric Lamb stuck mostly to duets. Chase opened the concert with one of the evening's two exceptions: Steve Reich's "Vermont Counterpoint," for one musician. Switching rapidly among alto and bass instruments as well as piccolo, the flutist gave the intricately syncopated piece exactly the fire and funk it demanded -- along with a healthy dose of humor.
Lightness of spirit and spectacular musicianship dominated the evening's program, which included works by a number of younger composers as well as pioneering minimalist Reich and New York downtown icon John Zorn. Reflecting the latter's interest in cartoons, sadomasochism and the occult, "sortilège" ("sorcery") began with MacDonald and Rubin working the bottom of the bass clarinet's lower register just long enough to make the ensuing squeals funnier than they otherwise would have been.
The piece progressed from an exploration of textures to a jazzily backhanded homage to Sun Ra veterans John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, complete with overblown harmonics and extravagant physical gestures. Toward the end, the clarinetists got downright comedic, mugging in mock competition.
Minnesota native Ryan Ingebritsen's drone-based, electronically augmented quartet, "Residence on Earth I: El Gran Océano," provided the concert's one truly grave moment, and it was profound rather than somber. Given the power just four players displayed on the piece, the audience couldn't help but wonder what ICE might offer with eight, 12, or even 30 members on stage. If Southern Theater Music Program Director Kate Nordstrom has her way, we'll almost surely eventually find out.
Rod Smith writes regularly about music.