Monday, May 25, 2015

Ensemble SIGNAL: It's Not Difficult

Reich and Lubman at JiB 2010
Few ensembles can boast performing works by both American minimalist pioneers and cutting-edge European avant-gardists, fewer still can perform each with equal elegance, expressivity, and fluency.  Signal is one of these.  The ensemble has made a name for themselves in the past seven years by working closely with both Steve Reich and Helmut Lachenmann, while producing diverse programs that include works by Ligeti and Lang, Boulez and Wolfe, Andriessen and Ferneyhough (and even, occasionally, 18th century music).  "We’re no longer plagued by notions of borders," Signal's director, Brad Lubman tells Thought Catalog.  "No one tells you, 'You have to play it this way' or 'You have to play it that way.'  It’s a very open time.  And because of that we’re seeing an explosion of compositional languages."  Seeing an explosion of languages is one thing, mastering so many of them is quite another.  But Signal often makes it look easy, performing even the most complex music with an agility that seems to disguise the intricacy—and difficulty—of such works.  "My viewpoint is that I don’t feel one should ever say anything is difficult," Lubman continues.  "What I’ve found is that even with some very complex music, once you’ve spent enough time with it, once you assimilate its features, you start to grasp the particular style and realize it’s not really difficult.  You just have to spend the time with it."

Radnofsky performing Lachenmann's
Pression during Signal's co-residency
with Lachenmann in 2010
Signal was founded in 2008 by Lauren Radnofsky and Lubman.  Radnofsky, Signal's executive director and principal 'cellist, is an important figure in contemporary string music, regularly presenting adventurous music with and without the ensemble (including appearing as the soloist in Saariaho's Amers and collaborating with JACK Quartet in performances of Xenakis's music).  Lubman has been a frequent guest conductor in many of the world's leading ensembles and orchestras, including Ensemble Modern, Klangforum Wien, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.  Since its formation, Signal has performed over 100 concerts, including the premieres of more than 20 new works, while co-producing five recordings (including a critically-acclaimed new recording of Reich's Music for 18 Musicians).

Lubman's relationship with June in Buffalo extends back nearly twenty-five years.  In 1992, he made his JiB debut conducting Charles Wuorinen's ornate chamber work On Alligators, while also seeing the performance of his own Trigram.  He returned to the festival several times throughout the decade, bringing his New Millennium Ensemble in 1994 and guest-conducting the New York New Music Ensemble in 1995.  In 2000, already a renowned interpreter of Steve Reich's music, he conducted the June in Buffalo Chamber Orchestra in a performance of the composer's City Life, while sticking around to conduct the Slee Sinfonietta in Bernard Rands's Concertino (a piece he reprised with Signal just last year).  Three years later, Lubman returned to conduct a stellar performance of Reich's Triple Quartet.

A particularly important performance took place at JiB 2007.  Lubman, already laying the groundwork for what would eventually become Signal, conducted the Slee Sinfonietta—augmented with several NY-based performers that would eventually play a crucial role in Lubman and Radnofsky's ensemble—in "An Evening with Steve Reich."  The performance featured two key works, including the then-recent Daniel Variations, and the rhythmic set of psalm-settings, Tehillim.  This proto-Signal concert hinted at what was to become, according to the New York Times, "one of the most vital groups of its kind."

Signal performing Julia Wolfe's Impatience at JiB 2012
Signal's first June in Buffalo was in 2010, and since then, the ensemble has become one of the most vital groups to the festival, returning every year to perform works by both student composers and faculty.  That first year saw another Reich portrait concert, including the unique pairing of the composer's Sextet with his recent Pulitzer-winning Double Sextet.  The following year, the ensemble returned to feature Ligeti's Chamber Concerto alongside David Felder's Journal—and, who could forget the full-on assault of Signal's performance of this writer's The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel?  (I can't, at least.)  2012 saw the ensemble's first multimedia performance, featuring Julia Wolfe's Impatience—a quasi-symphonic work accompanying Charles De Keukeleire's quasi-Futurist film of the same title.  Signal presented a particularly ambitious program the following year, giving strong performances of two complex—but not difficult—violin concerti:  Augusta Read Thomas's Carillon Sky and Brian Ferneyhough's Terrain, both performed with Irvine Arditti.  The program ended with a show-stopping performance of Wuorinen's Big Spinoff.  

Signal and the Slee Sinfonietta premiere Felder's LQTC
This year, the ensemble returns for their sixth JiB, to present (with members of the Slee Sinfonietta) David Felder's Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux.  Lubman premiered the evening-length piece in 2013, stunning the audience with his incredible ability to command not only the large ensemble onstage with his characteristically sweeping gestures, but also to cue the electronicists seated in the back of the hall with equal urgency.  That, coupled with Felder's 12-channel electronics, made the audience feel like we were seated within the ensemble, with intriguing sonic action unfolding all around us.  We look forward to seeing the reprisal of this performance, a virtuosic display of compositional artistry and performer dexterity.  It takes just such an ensemble to perform a piece such a this:  one that is able to assimilate its features, grasp its style, and belie the fact that surely this music is quite difficult.

—Ethan Hayden