Nimbus Ensemble messes with Xenakis

Special to The Times

In keeping with the Nimbus Ensemble's tradition, its concert Thursday night at Zipper Hall was wrapped around a theme, this one prompted by a word, "palimpsest," that is also the title of a 1979 work by the late Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. As explained by Nimbus founder and conductor Young Riddle, the program fed off the idea of a palimpsest -- an ancient document written over multiple times and thus containing beguiling layers and traces of earlier texts.

That idea, Riddle said, was specifically evident in a digital reconfiguring by Dan Hosken (the premiere of his Xenakis-based "A Palimpsest of 'Palimpsest' ") and in the larger historical connection of Xenakis' own layering upon the influential model of Arnold Schoenberg, whose Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 16, was performed in its chamber ensemble reduction.

Riddle's concept seemed a stretch. Musical evolution, especially in the 20th century, has had less to do with layering than with invention, sedition and the pursuit of fresh ideas. But the concert's actual music was what mattered, particularly the rare chance to hear solid performances of works by Xenakis and Schoenberg. The latter's 1909 piece was written before his serialist conversion but contains plenty of tersely expressionistic angularity and wistful angst.

Another Nimbus tradition is the addition of "mystery" selections. Thursday, clarinetist Kathryn Nevin deftly played Stravinsky's "Three Pieces for Clarinet," a short 1919 work invested with identifiable Stravinsky-isms -- including a gnarly, obsessive folk-like motif -- and the important young bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck got a chance to shine in young composer Steven Hoey's impressive "Sotra Voce." Schoenbeck coaxed extended sounds from her instrument but retained its lonely eloquence.

Xenakis' work is a fascinating place to visit, as it builds and undoes its structure and engages in various sonic funhouse-mirror maneuvers. Our ears yearn to latch onto discernible themes or rhythmic grids, but they're just beyond grasp. In short, it's a test of musical perception. Pianist Nadia Shpachenko and timpanist Dave Gerhart were given workouts and rose to their tasks.

In Hosken's piece, the composer manned digital gear and manipulated material atop the Xenakis, which was repeated by the live ensemble. Hosken treated and mistreated the work, live and on the fly, supplying echoes, samples out of context and other sound alterations and also smearing on his own sonic debris. He wielded his "Wizard of Oz"-like power impressively, with offstage controls and an expansive toolbox.

Messing with a respected original work is questionable, however, especially when the result is so tightly wedded to the source rather than a variation on a theme. Then again, in this digital age, rules of creative propriety and intellectual property are constantly changing. The jury is still out on whether any cultural crimes are being committed.

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