The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble at Willow Place Auditorium

Beth Levin

[March 2005.]

Tonight (March 14) Petr Kotik’s Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble performs at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. Last night they gave the program before a Brooklyn audience at the Willow Place Auditorium in Brooklyn Heights. I’m happy they did.

Willow Place is a tiny street I almost missed. [Tiny and among the city’s most charmingly quaint. It nestles in a neighborhood dating from the early 19th century. Ed.] Stepping through a heavy door, I entered a starkly appointed interior in time to catch the last moments of rehearsal. Tall windows and white walls reminded me of a parish church in an Iceland village. Peter Karl, one of Brooklyn’s best engineers, recorded the event and provided the electronic effects where needed. Perhaps the evening on tape would leave a few seams showing, a shirttail or two untucked.

Chairs were set around the floor for both audience and players. Petr Kotik changed from jeans into a dark suit. Black-clad musicians began entering the room. The proximity of audience to players is one of the hall’s charms. I could easily observe their demeanors. As a performer, I value that. The old church’s wooden construction and intimate dimensions provide a lovely acoustic, allowing the sound to breathe and resonate.

A Rameau suite first: Les Indes Galantes, 1733. The players are young. I recognize an outstanding violist, Lev Zhurbin, and realize that the group as a whole is first-rate. The performance is sensitive, unmannered, exacting, rhythmically taut but, here and there, with a gentle rubato. Kotik is like a father illuminating a path for his brood, pinpointing dynamics, never wasting a gesture.

Anton Webern’s Symphony in two movements, Op. 21 (1927/28), received a devoted reading. It’s not often heard in concert. A friend sitting next to me said the last time he heard it live was in 1940! The music’s textures here could not be more transparent, the compositional technique more gracious. This purity of sound and structure affects the listener directly. I believe that Maestro Kotik may be drawn to music whose form stands as a visible presence, in much the way an Amish church encourages worship.

Next, Alvin Lucier’s The Exploration of the House (2005), an electronically driven work based on the music of Beethoven, snippets first, performed by the ensemble and fed into the electronics, distorting by progressions. In its final incarnation, the melange resembles a horn in traffic, the kind I often hear coming down from the street as I wait at the Jay Street station for the F train. I mentioned demeanors as a dimension beyond listening: One musician had a finger in her ear, another looked disdainful, another bored. It’s best not to monkey about with Beethoven. On the other hand, I found myself lost in memory as the music intensified. Besides, what’s a new-music concert without a touch of shock?

After a short intermission, Kotik’s Devin, in which a quartet of female vocalists from Prague chanted Vladilav Vancura’s “Scenes from the History of the Czech Nation.” The combination of extraordinary voices and superb percussion brought history to evocative life. The text’s treatment and underlying rhythms mingled physical and spiritual qualities, with strategically placed fermatas contributing silence as a dramatic force.

The final work, Morton Feldman’s exquisite The Turfan Fragments, was performed no less exquisitely. Feldman’s genius haunts the rhythmic and thematic intensity, in repetitions that led to an arching shape that impressed me as treacherously difficult to execute effectively. Here again, being close enough to sense the players’ fierce concentration added to the drama.

I hope that Maestro Kotik and the Orchestra of S.E.M. succeed in translating Willow Place’s immediacy to wherever they perform.


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