Max Richter and ACME light up Greenwich Village’s Le Poisson Rouge
The classical/alternative popular music composer teams with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble in a thrilling program
By Natalie Piontek
Goldring Arts Journalism program, Syracuse University
Contemporary composer Max Richter and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble gave a mesmerizing, deeply moving performance of Richter’s music at the intimate venue of Le Poisson Rouge last Wednesday.
Richter is a German-born British composer, classically trained at the Royal Academy of Music under the tutelage of Luciano Berio. His music carries elements of soundscape, neoclassicism and romanticism; it sounds somewhat like a romanticized Philip Glass with a synthesizer. Richter has composed for orchestra, chamber ensemble, ballet and film. He recently received critical attention for his soundtrack for the HBO series, The Leftovers. Richter also composed the music for Sarah’s Key and Shutter Island — in addition to the track Mercy on Hilary Hahn’s Grammy award-winning album, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.
The American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) is a young and critically-acclaimed chamber ensemble specializing in the music of 20th– and 21st-century American composers. The group has 11 regular members, and Wednesday evening’s performance featured violinists Ben Russell, Caleb Burhans, Yuki Numata Resnick; and cellist and artistic director, Clarice Jensen. The musicians played exquisitely — both individually and as an ensemble.
The first set of the evening opened with Richter’s score for The Leftovers, which began with a thunderous bass drum and a foreboding drone (think Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Inception or The Dark Knight Rises), created by a synthesizer that Richter operated from his laptop. The drum gradually faded into the distance, giving way to a haunting synthesized chorus, which was then followed by the introduction of the first violin (Ben Russell).
Through incredible bow control, Russell brought wonderful tension to the brooding yet simplistic melody. He used his tone wisely, often introducing themes with little or no vibrato. This made the climactic moments all the more powerful — such as the ending of the movement Dona Nobis Pacem 2, in which his fast and penetrating vibrato brought about the most arresting moments of the performance. The rest of the ensemble, playing repeated groups of 16th-notes, bolstered and catapulted the soaring violin melody forward with the help of a long, carefully drawn-out crescendo that built to an explosive climax.
The performance was buoyed by colored lighting, which was used tastefully and innovatively. The lights first bathed the stage in an iridescent, blue hue — and then subsequently changed colors to match different moods in the music, or sometimes swiveled positions to focus on a soloist.
The Leftovers includes a few tracks for solo piano/synthesizer, such as Departures — a minimalist piece that sounds as if plucked from Philip Glass’s soundtrack to The Hours. In connection with the storyline of the HBO show in which characters disappear unexpectedly, Richter chose to use instruments whose sounds decay after being struck — in this case, the piano.
Cellist Clarice Jensen shined in Dona Nobis Pacem 2, which begins almost imperceptibly with the quiet, subdued chimes of a synthesized celeste. The cello then glides over the sparse texture with a simple but aching stepwise melody. The most incredible attribute of this piece is how unexpectedly it develops, and how even the thinnest of textures is transformed into one that is Mahler-esque — expansive and symphonic. We hear the synthesized sounds of low brass, at first just a murmur but then prominent. As all the instruments reach the loudest point together there’s a giant timpani roll, cymbals crash, and the cello — now joined by the strings — sings the melody at a proud fortissimo. I was amazed by how Richter had developed just a few notes from a celeste into a bafflingly, expansive symphonic texture, and in the space of only a few minutes.
The second set on the program was Infra, a work Richter had originally composed for ballet with choreographer Wayne McGregor and first performed at the Royal Opera House. Richter composed Infra (meaning under) in response to the July 7, 2005 subway bombings in London, as a reflection of the life that exists “beneath the ground.” Having drawn inspiration from Schubert’s famous song cycle Wintereisse, Richter referred to Infra as a “journey piece,” throughout which “you’ll hear little atoms and molecules of Schubert floating about.”
A complex piece both musically and artistically, Infra also includes animation (created by artist Julian Opie). Like the colored lighting used in the show, the animation used here was subtle and complementary. Some of the animated figures moved more slowly, some more quickly. As the music grew more gripping and tumultuous, the number of figures multiplied.
The piece begins with the sounds of static and a man speaking muffled words over a monitor. Richter projected warm sounds of bells and ambient tones from the synthesizer, over which Jensen played a haunting legato melody. Finally, a solo by Ben Russell pulled at the heartstrings, prompting many in the audience to shout “Yeah, Max!” and “We love you, Max!” at the end of the performance.
The concert had special meaning for me. After spending the past few years following his music, I was thrilled to finally hear Richter live — and even more thrilled that the concert far exceeded my expectations. Among all the performances of live music I’ve attended, this one ranks among those at the very top.
Richter is a force in contemporary music that cannot be denied, and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble was the ideal choice to perform his experimental and emotionally wrenching compositions.
Natalie Piontek, a graduate of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in flute performance and English literature, is currently pursuing her master’s degree at Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism program, a division of the college’s renowned S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications
What: Max Richter: The Leftovers and Infra
With: The American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME)
When: March 25, 2015
Where: Le Poisson Rouge (Greenwich Village), 158 Bleecker St., New York