Members of Ensemble 61 / Photo by Megan Wilson Eckers
BY LARRY FUCHSBERG
Even in good times, “new music” remains a somewhat marginal phenomenon. But the Twin Cities new-music scene, underpopulated in recent years, is staging one of its periodic resurgences, as evidenced by the successful debut Saturday of Ensemble 61. Though without reputation, this nascent group (numbering ten on this occasion) drew a capacity crowd to Zeitgeist’s Studio Z in St. Paul’s mutilated Lowertown—this on the most exquisite evening in many months.
The venue is clearly part of the story. Together with the more spacious (and now embattled) Southern Theater, Studio Z has become the region’s go-to space for post-classical music—the catalyst of a carefully nurtured subculture that barely existed a few years ago. Something similar, and similarly welcome, is already happening in and around the adjacent Baroque Room: this latest niche venue, its paint scarcely dry, is suddenly the preferred destination for local early-music audiences, heretofore diffuse. If only parking weren’t such a chore!
But if Ensemble 61 (co-directed by composer Kirsten Broberg and percussionist Erik Barsness) stands on Zeitgeist’s shoulders, it is, to judge from this first outing, wholly distinct in its tastes and repertoire. Its demanding inaugural program, “Across the Divide”—the divide being that between France and Germany—was quite unlike anything Zeitgeist has given us, and not simply because the two groups differ in their instrumentation. Comprising music by four Germans and three Frenchmen, Saturday’s program ranged chronologically from Olivier Messiaen’s 1952 “Le merle noir,” a test piece for flute students at the Paris Conservatory, to Hans Thomalla’s 2009 “Percussion Counterpart.” (Thomalla, who teaches at Northwestern University, was on hand for a pre-concert talk.) Also on the longish bill were Tristan Murail, Phlippe Hurel (whose 2006 “Cantus” received its U.S. premiere), Matthias Pintscher (recently heard with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra) and elder statesmen Helmut Lachenmann and Wolfgang Rihm.
The Franco-German theme promised much, but wasn’t sufficiently elaborated in the one-page handout—there were no notes, and no text for “Cantus”—or in remarks from the stage. Nor was there a single woman among the composers featured; one unfolded the printed program to find mug shots of seven males. For an American in 2011, this persistent Euro-sexism, if that’s what it is, seems quaint at best.
Among Saturday’s performances, all of them capable, I was most taken with guitarist Jesse Langen’s riveting account of Murail’s flamenco-influenced “Tellur” (1977) and by the well-coordinated efforts of the full ensemble, crowned by soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw’s virtuosic vocalizing, in the closing “Cantus.” Devotees of new music, of whatever provenance, should keep a close eye on this accomplished, ambitious band.
Hear interview with and music by the Ensemble on MPR here.
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