A conducting debut in a fine new music program

Matthias Pintscher
Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Patrick Stearns

Since new-music concerts should, by definition, be unimaginable, Matthias Pintscher's program Wednesday at the Kimmel Center can't technically be called the event of one's dreams, since it couldn't have been envisioned. But you get the idea.

The German-born, New York-based composer might be called a neo-modernist, or simply an extremist in many respects. He made his local conducting debut with the Curtis 20/21 Contemporary Music Ensemble in a concert presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Imaginatively conceived, smartly sequenced and brilliantly executed, it created a logical progression of thought, from Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks concerto on through Henze's Neapolitan Lieder, Ravel's Trois poemes de Stephane Mallarme, and Pintscher's Songs From Solomon's Garden.

Stravinsky was played with the sort of heterogeneous interplay few would risk: The more independent its moving parts, the more likely a train wreck in performance. Despite some roughness, no reading I've heard has been so smart and witty, almost like stand-up comedy in the abstract. Conductors rightly give much attention to entrances, but Pintscher also gave exits an extra snap that felt like the coda to a joke.

The pieces that followed had conceptually similar but stylistically diverging interplay among far-reaching musical elements, as well as an evolution of instrumental effects from black and white (Stravinsky) to vivid color in Henze. Those songs, written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, are also vocally astute but gleefully depart from the norm with compact, through-composed construction, long instrumental preludes, plus endings that find different ways to be inconclusive. Dissonance is fleeting, but harmonic uncertainty was rampant and poetic - at least under Pintscher. The Ravel songs show the composer looking deep into the future, which created a perfect bridge to Pintscher's music.

The text for his piece is from the Song of Solomon, respectfully set to music with sharp expressive contours tailored for Thomas Hampson, who premiered it last year. Lighting levels at the Perelman Theater were too low to follow the 17 stanzas of printed text with much certainty, though the composer's instrumental scoring flooded the ear with his typical sound world: shuddering percussion, muted brass, short solos by harp and violin played at extreme parts of their ranges, swirling for extended passages around one note, quietly sounded like a sonic beacon.

Performances by student singers were beautifully prepared. In Henze, Julian Arsenault had a wonderful soft-grained baritone reminiscent of Petre Munteanu. Jazimina MacNeil brought much mezzo allure to the Mallarme text in the Ravel songs. Most remarkable was Evan Hughes, whose penetrating articulation of the Hebrew text made you glad Pintscher's false endings were in fact false.