Two Decades for Ensemble X

link to the article By Jane Dieckmann

Twenty years ago, Ensemble X, the group of Cornell and Ithaca College faculty musicians dedicated to presenting contemporary works and 20th-century classics, gave its first concert. The ensemble closes this anniversary season with a “big splash” event in Barnes Hall on Sunday, April 15, at 8 p.m. On the program are chamber concertos for piano by British composer Jonathan Harvey and Stephen Hartke from Oberlin, plus a shorter piece for orchestra and electronics by Cornell graduate and “star” composer Christopher Stark. Soloists are Cornell professor of piano and Ensemble X’s director, Xak Bjerken, and Ryan McCullough, candidate for the DMA in Performance at Cornell. Accompanying them is an ensemble of 25 instrumentalists, led by Timothy Weiss of Oberlin.

The present season for Ensemble X has been organized as a tribute to the late Steven Stucky, composer, conductor, and a Pulitzer-prize winner, who was its founder and leader—later joined by co-director Bjerken—for many years. At the very first concert, Stucky wrote that “Ensemble X is devoted to bridging gaps: between composer and performer, between composer and audience, between past and present.” Many of the players in this concert performed with Stucky, and, as Bjerken told me, “our lives changed so much because of him. He really started it all.” Over the past years, the group has presented more than 250 works, many of the premiere, by a variety of composers from all over the world. They also have acquired an enthusiastic following, and Bjerken, along with IC clarinetist and “partner in crime” Richard Faria, has continued the group’s tradition of adventurous programming and outstanding musicianship.

The orchestra assembled for this concert is much larger than usual but reflects the traditional combination of musicians from Cornell and IC. Among them are three members of the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra and six Cornell undergraduates. Their conductor, Timothy Weiss, has directed the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble for more than 20 years, and helped create and mentor the wonderful ensemble “eighth blackbird.” 

Opening the program is Bird Concerto with Pianosong (2001) by Jonathan Harvey, a leader in electronic music in his time and one of Stucky’s favorite composers. The title suggests an amusing piece, but in reality, it is a hauntingly beautiful dialog between the recorded natural sounds of birds and the piano. It is if the piano were talking with the birds. With the recorded sounds all around, the audience gets to experience the joy of endless singing plus the feeling of freedom in flight. As the work was written for “very old” equipment—probably 2001 is the Middle Ages in electronic music—director of Cornell’s Electroacoustic Music Center Kevin Ernste and composer Stark are assisting in the sound diffusion operations. For soloist McCullough, performing this work is part of his doctoral degree. 

Following intermission comes True North by Stark. Like Harvey’s work, it features digital sounds from nature along with the acoustic sounds of instruments on stage. Stark holds a DMA in Composition from Cornell, and his career has taken off—his latest commission comes from the LA Philharmonic and will be conducted by John Adams in Disney Hall. The composer, inspired by the work of Surrealist painters, developed software to create new and strange harmonics. The title refers to the geographical North Pole, a guiding principle in his work. 

To close the program, Bjerken plays the East Coast Premiere of a one-movement concerto commissioned for him by Ensemble X and written by Hartke, who is chair of the composition at Oberlin. Called Ship of State, it relates to perilous political situations both past and present. Inspired by ardent abolitionist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Building of the Ship,” in which the ship named “Union” is falling apart, the work has four sections, each with a heading taken from the poem. It opens, Bjerken says, with a trombone solo, marked “obnoxious.” Then the piano enters with the marking “panicky.”  There is a lot of “edgy wild jazz,” while the third movement is a “touching lullaby.”  The final section is based on the tune of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” but the melody is inverted like the flag is upside-down. The rhythm throughout is “SOS” in Morse code, tying the piece together. It’s “entertaining and powerful,” and the “highlight of anything I’ve ever done.”

Come and hear this “wow” concert, new music played by hard-working musicians who are really excited to be playing. It relates so well to Stucky, whose influence and friendship have inspired so many performers and music lovers. And, Bjerken say, it is “our way of saying thanks to our listeners and supporters over the years.” The concert is free and open to the public, with refreshments afterward. 

The concert is free and open to the public.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

in Barnes Hall on the campus of Cornell University

7:30 pm pre-concert talk

8:00 pm concert





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