"My favorite instrument is the orchestra," Magnus Lindberg has said. So it's little surprise that the Finnish composer's best known works are a series of inventive pieces that push at the orchestra's sonic boundaries. Thursday's "Composer Portrait" of Lindberg at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by the crack International Contemporary Ensemble featured less familiar fare written for smaller forces. That the concert still managed to present a nuanced portrait of this compelling artist was thus no small achievement.
An ill-timed encounter with some bad traffic caused me to miss much of the program's opening work, "Linea d'ombra" (1981), for flute, clarinet, guitar and percussion, though I did hear a wonderfully eerie passage late in the piece in which a clarinet solo is enveloped by the sounds of a tam-tam being played with chains, styrofoam hunks, and cardboard tubes.
The evening's longest work was the Clarinet Quintet (1992), composed in a single movement lasting almost 20 minutes. It is a tightly drawn cauldron of nervous energy. Much of the piece consists of short scalar motifs and trills that move fretfully among the players, like insects swarming a light bulb. Though the musical language is thorny and largely atonal, the piece reaches its climax in something close to the key of D Major, before quickly scurrying to its close.
A similar sense of restlessness is present in the Duo Concertante, written the same year, for solo clarinet and cello and an unusual chamber group of winds, strings, and percussion. Like the Quintet, it begins with flutters of sound and rapid dialogues, this time between the soloists and the ensemble.
Yet here the musical language is gentler and more inviting, the rhythms buoyant rather than frenetic. Each of the solo instruments has a cadenza; that for cello is especially tough to navigate, full of tricky harmonics. The colors are more diverse than in the Quintet, yet like that piece, it ends with a surprising turn to traditional tonality - here, a radiant C Major chord.
Sandwiched between these two was a suite of six short piano pieces called "Piano Jubilees" (2000). The first, written for Pierre Boulez's 75th birthday, is the most complex and hermetic of the set. The five that follow are less oblique, allowing a listener to follow Lindberg's patterns more easily. The final piece is awash in beautiful, wide open chords, suggesting that, for all Lindberg's avant-garde trappings, there lurks within him a deep appreciation of musical tradition.
ICE's performances were a joy for the easy fluidity with which they projected all this difficult music. Clarinetist Joshua Rubin was front and center most of the evening and was excellent; so was his partner in the Duo Concertante, cellist Katinka Kleijn. Cory Smythe played "Piano Jubilees" with grace and intensity.