Ensemble X

After a period of retirement, Ensemble X has been revived and announces a season of three concerts, starting in Barnes Hall this Sunday, Sept. 14, at 8 p.m. On the program is the first work the group ever performed, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1, along with Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel, Hindemith’s Kammermusik No.1, and—as planned for every concert—a recent work by a Cornell DMA student, in this case, Waking Rhythm by Loren Loiacono. 

A chamber ensemble composed of Cornell and Ithaca College musicians and devoted to the new and modern repertory, Ensemble X started out in November 1997, under the leadership of conductor (and Pulitzer prize-winning composer) Steven Stucky. For about ten years, the group gave more than 30 concerts, played 130 plus works by about 80 different composers from all over the world (ranging from world-famous to Cornell composition students), and garnered an enthusiastic and loyal circle of local supporters and a great reputation around the country. Their final official concert was a whacky celebration on April Fools Day in 2006. The retired ensemble kept popping up, however, most recently last February. With Stucky now at Juilliard, Cornell pianist Xak Bjerken has taken over the leadership of Ensemble X. 

The revival, he explains, is partly a tribute to Stucky, but, after the last concert, “colleagues said they wanted to ‘do it for real.’ We were all having a tremendous amount of fun.” He gets considerable help from his fellow musicians, especially in the selection of repertory. There are some changes—this revival season sports a handsome mailer, and each concert has a different theme and venue.

The first half of this program called “Classics Plus” deals with scandals. The title of the opening work translates as “Crossplay.” Composed in 1951, Stockhausen considered it his first original accomplishment, designed to provoke strong reaction. When first performed, it encountered a violent audience interruption. 

The work starts out with notes at very high register descending in pitch to cross ascending low notes, forming a large X—perfect for Ensemble X’s opening. A second section features rhythmic and dynamic variations in the percussion, and the final part combines the first two. It should prove exciting. Six players—three are percussionists—will be conducted by IC’s Jeffery Meyer. 

The second scandal piece is the 1906 Schoenberg chamber symphony, composed in reaction to the huge late-Romantic orchestral works current at the time. The composer compressed the large orchestra to 15 solo instruments, and standard symphony movements are boiled down to one single composite movement. He also used superimposed fourths and whole-tone scales, creating considerable dissonance. When the work was featured in a 1913 concert of similar compositions in Vienna, fights broke out, ending the concert early. 

Ensemble X’s presentation is the Anton Webern arrangement for just five players, with four of the five originals on hand—pianist Bjerken, plus clarinetist Richard Faria, flutist Wendy Mehne, and cellist Elizabeth Simkin from the IC faculty. They are joined by violinist Fritz Gearhart from the University of Oregon, replacing IC’s Susan Waterbury this semester and son of the well-known Pamela Gearhart.

After intermission we will hear Loren Loiacono’s new piece, where he uses a simple musical materials to create an uncertain, hazy atmosphere of, in his words, “coming in and out of focus, like a dreamer awakening.” Meyer will conduct. 

Bjerken wants to reach out and introduce people to the best and most engaging new music. He wants it for Ithaca, invigorating the “hands across the gorge”—of the over 20 musicians in this concert about half are from each school. He is planning programs with diverse and appealing ingredients. “We want to try to compose them like a good meal.” • 

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