Ensemble Pi Commemorate the Iraq War with an Understatedly Harrowing Program
Even by avant garde standards, chamber group Ensemble Pi stand out not only for the adventurousness of their commissions and their repertoire, but also for their fearlessly political stance. Their annual Peace Concert at Subculture Wednesday night, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Bush/Cheney war in Iraq, held to loosely interconnected themes of how language may be interpreted. Group leader and elegantly eclectic pianist Idith Meshulam joined with cellist Katie Schlaikjer and violinist Airi Yoshioka to premiere a Susan Botti song cycle, J’ai tant rêvé de toi, a setting of the famous Robert Desnos love poem that was inscribed posthumously on the Monument to the Martyrs of World War II in Paris. Soprano Kristin Norderval dedicated the performance to Eric Garner and his survivors – with its acidic tonaliites, the vocals, accompaniment and instrumental passages maintained a bracing, tense, precise walking pace punctuated by the occasional horrified cadenza.
It set the stage for an early Krzysztof Penderecki work, his Violin Sonata No. 1. Ostensibly written with the death of Stalin in mind, its harshness never wavered and eventually dissapated in endless if precisely played waves of twelve-tone acidity. Clarinetist Moran Katz then joined the trio for another world premiere, Laura Kaminsky‘s strikingly intense diptych, Deception. Katz’s moody, richly burnished low register in tandem with the cello built an air of mystery and foreboding, occasionally punctured by the piano. The second movement worked clever variations via individual voices in a very Debussy-esque arrangement that also offered a nod to Shostakovich and possibly Penderecki as well.
The evening’s funniest moment was when Norderval sang a brief Bryant Kong setting of Donald Rumsfeld doublespeak about known knowns and known unknowns and so forth: it brought to mind Phil Kline‘s Rumsfeld Songs, a lengthier and even funnier take. Jason Eckardt‘s Rendition, for clarinet and piano, made an apt segue, exploring the concept of rendition in both lethal and less lethal forms. It made for a portrayal of both the chillingly robotic, lockstep mentality that justifies the use of torture as well as its numbingly dehumanizing aspects. To close the program on a particularly chilling note, the ensemble switched out the cello for soprano Rachel Rosales, who sang selections from Shostakovich’s subversive 1967 suite Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok. Blok’s hundred-year-old poems celebrate the downfall of the Tsarist regime, but they also make good anthems for freedom fighters looking to destroy any evil empire: they’re hardly pacifist, and Shostakovich was keenly aware of that. And it was there that the horror of totalitarianism came front and center, Rosales’ dynamic delivery ranging from steely irony to fullscale terror over a backdrop that spoke of shock and awe, from the perspective on the receiving end.
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