Ridiculous Virtuosity: Modern-Music Troupe Crackles And Dazzles


Asko|Schönberg conductor Bas Wiegers with Dutch composer and visual artist Thomas van Dun at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (Photos by Xenia Hanusiak)

AMSTERDAM — If you’re looking for a group that can perform any repertoire from across the contemporary classical-music canon with decisive ownership, look no further than the Netherlands’ Asko|Schönberg ensemble. This multi-instrumental powerhouse, formed by a merger of the Asko Ensemble and the Schönberg Ensemble in 2009, is widely recognized for interpretations of music by Louis Andriessen, but for a Saturday-matinee concert Oct. 28 at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the group displayed its stylistic dexterity and exceptional ability to respond to any challenge placed before an ensemble today.

For this generous two-hour-plus concert, the ensemble’s program — under the canny eye of artistic director Fedor Teunisse — paid homage to the 100th anniversary of György Ligeti’s birth, a milestone being enthusiastically embraced across the globe. Under conductor Bas Wiegers, Asko|Schönberg celebrated the commemoration through the lens of one of Ligeti’s most visible and perhaps precocious students, Unsuk Chin.

The virtuosity of the ensemble crackled and popped from the first downbeat of the opening work, Chin’s wondrous 2009/2011 Gougalõn: Scenes from a Street Theater. Throughout this six-movement musical evocation of Chin’s reminisces of the street entertainers the composer encountered as a child in Seoul, the musicians responded with wit and precision. An ecstatic radiance shone on Chin’s idiosyncratic and evocative language and color palettes. But it was the ensemble’s ridiculously virtuosic percussion section that brought Chin’s piece to an unsurpassed level of clamorous excitement and enjoyment. The group’s performance was as vivid a reading of a score as you could wish for, and while the performance was recorded for broadcast, you might also hope that Asko|Schönberg’s interpretation will make its way to a committed recording.

Pianist Pierre Laurent-Aimard with conductor Bas Wiegers and Asko|Schönberg

Asko|Schönberg’s ability to navigate the breadths of musical styles was immediately appreciated in their world premiere performance of Rocailles de l’apres-vie… (Rock Gardens of the after-life) by Dutch composer and visual artist Thomas van Dun. This is a plush, velvety work that builds on a series of ebbing, flowing, and sighing legato themes that dovetail with cross-fades. Van Dun’s fascination with reverberation and phasing was in evidence. There are also some piquant, wistful moments for Swiss cowbells and a persuasive trombone line. Van Dun creates a sonic world that is romantically hypnotic without being sentimental, magnetic without being referential, and dramatic without being bombastic.

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a distinguished contemporary music specialist, brought a substantial if perhaps overly emphatic mark to Ligeti’s Piano Concerto. The opening movement, with its metrical disjunction and overlays of 4/4 and 12/8 times, took a few moments to settle, but both soloist and orchestra focused on precision and accuracy as their approach to Ligeti’s dense score of polyrhythms and complex harmonic textures. This slightly academic tactic, however assured and appropriate­, resulted in a performance that felt a little square. But this masterclass in crisp accuracy reiterated within the space of a concert why Asko|Schönberg are exemplary custodians for the music of our time.