Molding Sound to Behave Like a Solar Eclipse

Matthias Pintscher
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

Matthias Pintscher’s music whispers far more often than it shouts. But when this imaginative 39-year-old German composer and conductor wants an ensemble to produce a big sound, he is not shy about asking its percussionists to supply a generous helping of thunder, sometimes supported by full-throttle, harmonically dense contributions from the brasses and woodwinds.

Mr. Pintscher was the subject of the Miller Theater’s first Composer Portraits concert of the season, on Thursday evening, and the four pieces on the program conveyed a sense of the extremes at which he works, as well as the peculiar sensibility that drives his music. What appears to interest him most is texture, but as soon as he finds an alluring one — it could be a delicate, repeated arpeggio, sparkling softly at the top of the keyboard, or the blend of an airy flute, a not-quite-on-the-note violin tremolando and metallic percussion — he has it morph into something else.

The most ambitious score here was “Sonic Eclipse” (2010), a three-movement work built around a fascinating structural notion. The first two movements — “celestial object I” and “celestial object II” — are essentially brief concertos, the first for trumpet, the second for horn. In the finale, “occultation,” elements of the first two movements are overlaid — an idea suggested by the mechanics of a solar eclipse. The result is a colorful, energetic movement in which the trumpet and horn lines are alternately independent and interlocking.

The mostly introspective trumpet writing, played with nuanced virtuosity by Gareth Flowers, begins with a toneless figure — air blown through the instrument, with a rhythmic undercurrent created by depressing the valves — and includes muted passagework that toward the end explodes into a rhapsodic solo.

The French horn part in “celestial object II,” more assertive from the start, explores the instrument’s full range, from growling bass notes to more ecstatic high pitches. David Byrd-Marrow’s tour of the line’s intricacies and quick figuration was stunning and assured.    But if the trumpet and horn lines naturally commanded the attention, it was not because the orchestral scoring, with its continuous, otherworldly texture shifting, lacked attractions of its own. Mr. Pintscher drew a vivid performance from the expert musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. He also led the group, with the flexible soprano Tony Arnold, in “a twilight’s song” (1997), a fluid E. E. Cummings setting.

Mr. Pintscher’s vocal writing is wedded to the poetry’s spirit, if not its surface. In “a twilight’s song,” that meant plenty of octave leaping to capture the stark emotionality that underlies Cummings’s meditative verses. His setting of an Octavio Paz poem, “Un despertar” (“An awaking”) , from 2008, is more subdued, and was performed gracefully by Evan Hughes, a bass-baritone with a light, appealing timbre, and Cory Smythe, the pianist who also played “on a clear day” (2004), the gentle, soft-edged piano work that opened the program.