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Music Review

At Harvard, two ensembles let it breathe

Timothy Weiss conducted the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble. Timothy Weiss conducted the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble. (John Seyfried)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / April 4, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — The tempo marking of Salvatore Sciarrino’s beguiling 1985 “Lo spazio inverso’’ could have applied to the whole of Friday night’s Fromm Concert at Harvard: “without time,’’ it directs, “with the breath.’’ The breath is at the core of all music making, be it singing, phrasing, or the physicality of performance; this concert (the first of two, curated by Harvard professor Chaya Czernowin) brought the breath — its sound, its rhythm, its significance — to the fore.

The first half featured the excellent Freiburg, Germany-based Ensemble SurPlus, directed by Sven Thomas Kiebler, in music pegged to respiration’s deliberate pace. “Lo spazio inverso’’ (“Inner Space’’) set the tone: Over the clarinet’s barely audible, multiphonic tolling, the eerie abrasion of strings, an airy flute, and punched pillows of celesta clusters echoed as from a premonitory distance.

Mark Andre’s 2005 “. . .zu staub. . .’’ (“to dust’’) went further, its music decayed into an ominous rhapsody of white noise — scratches of bow hair, whistles of air, the clattering thud of prepared piano, even the Cageian click of amplified cacti. The piece exhausted its conceit at (perhaps deliberately) enervating length.

Nobody ever did long-breathed, placid intensity quite like the late Morton Feldman; his 1970 “The Viola in My Life (2)’’ (featuring violist Jessica Rona, first among equals in a 7-player group) circumnavigated its lapidary sounds with deceptive repose, a lustrous mobile all the more dramatically charged for being so temporally gentle.

On the second half, the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Timothy Weiss, offered sharp readings of works with more insistent evanescence. Josh Levine’s 2006 compact, compelling “Clear Sky,’’ for soprano saxophone (James Kalyn, with coursing flair) and nine players, was a series of waves, gasped air cresting into sheets of bold microtonal glare. Jonathan Harvey’s grand 1997 “Wheel of Emptiness’’ was even more active, dazzling flurries of sound, some harsh, some burnished, its 16 players tasked with emphatic, virtuosic breakers over discreet electronics. Referencing its Buddhist title, it was less a portrayal of meditative practice than an invitation, constantly redirecting one’s consciousness back into a busy, mindfully regarded present.

John Luther Adams’s “The Immeasurable Space of Tones,’’ completed in 2001, went for deeper breathing: a slowly-morphing biomass of weighty harmonies, mesmerizing and gorgeous. Next to Harvey, Adams’s enlightenment was, maybe, more idealized; but its long, steady exhalations reciprocated the spirit behind the former’s glittering here-and-now. The first requirement for achieving something breathtaking is taking a breath.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

INTERIOR GARDENS Ensemble SurPlus

Sven Thomas Kiebler, conductor

Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble

Timothy Weiss, conductor

Presented by the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University

At: Paine Hall, Friday