Pendulum VI: Trigger, composed in 2010, was performed by Yarn/Wire, a quartet of musicians consisting of Laura Barger/piano, Ning Yu/piano, Ian Antonio/percussion and Russell Greenberg/percussion. For Mincek, the piano is primarily a percussion instrument: its capacity for melody is almost incidental. Barger and Yu plucked and pushed at the two pianos’ strings: they played the pianos but rarely in any semblance of traditional ways. At the beginning and end of the piece, the piano sounds were at once abrasive and spectral. Initially, random sounds resolved themselves towards the middle of the ten-minute piece into a musical vocabulary that mysteriously managed a melding of mechanical precision and organic fluidity, briefly crescendoed to something almost romantically grand, and then returned to the odd beginnings, now familiar.
The second piece, String Quartet No. 3 lift-tilt-filter-split, played by the Mivos Quartet – Olivia De Prato/violin, Joshua Modney/violin, Victor Lowrie/viola and Mariel Roberts/cello – shared important features with Pendulum VI. The string instruments were played both traditionally and experimentally … with verve, daring and panache. The music alternated between the “regular” and recognizable on the one hand and the odd and otherly on the other: at high intensity. Restlessness agitated and relentlessness pushed; then something lovely and organic emerged before the final delicate end of the piece.
After the intermission, Alex Mincek was interviewed by Melissa Smey, the Miller Theatre Executive Director. Two key points emerged from their discussion. First, Mincek noted with delight, having written for Yarn/Wire and Mivos Quartet before, he felt compelled to write something “different” for them. In fact, the two pieces premiered in the second half of the program weren’t so much different as extensions of what he’s done before. Second, Mincek indicated that, writing “without a lot of melody,” he can “dwell on other things,” not telling stories but painting pictures.
Images of Duration (In Homage to Ellsworth Kelly) for piano and percussion, played by Yarn/Wire represents Mincek’s continued interest in American painter Kelly (1923-2015), but the five movements of this piece feel further away from Kelly than Mincek’s first Kelly-inspired work did more a decade ago. What was rewarding in this piece was the constant interplay and contrast of brash bangs and liquid lyricism, brassiness and elegance, and, finally, sound and spaciousness, each constantly recalibrated according to its contexts.
The concluding work of the evening, Torrent for Octet – composed for Yarn/Wire and Mivos together and commissioned by Miller Theatre – was, overall, a traditionally structured piece: it painted the picture – in spite of Mincek’s claims of non-narrative intentions, it almost told a story – of a storm that builds, expands, swells and then finally explodes before the clean, clear quiet of conclusion. All eight of the musicians elicited the full range of their instruments’ sounds; there were moments when this work sounded like a distant, several-generations-later descendant of a romantic symphony.
For all his modernity and fusion of seemingly divergent elements, Mincek is part of a long tradition of music-making: he makes meaning by calling up recognizable images and evoking feelings of exhilaration. After each piece, the audience applause was happy and excited. And in each instance, much of the thrill came from the quality of the performance: Yarn/Wire and Mivos Quartet rank high among the contemporary groups of classically trained, highly disciplined musicians who are willing to be completely daring. Artistic integrity undergirds both witty high-jinks and the most serious virtuosity.
All in all: composer, pianists, string-players and percussionists gave their audience a thrilling evening.
Composer Portaits: Alex Mincek with Yarn/Wire and Mivos Quartet (February 25, 2016)
Miller Theatre at Columbia University
2960 Broadway at 116th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes including one intermission