The Brevard Music Center and Festival, founded in 1936, has become one of the most important and prestigious Classical music festivals in the nation. For students, it’s a chance to study with world-class faculty. For nearby residents, it’s more concerts than we can possibly attend, spanning the entire gamut of Classical history, performed by international superstars and up-and-coming torch bearers (and let’s not forget that beautiful Blue Ridge setting).

Providing Brevard’s listeners with the near side of Classical history is ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble. ICE is more collective than ensemble, a modular group of thirty-five musicians who perform and advocate for new music. Responsible for commissioning and premiering more than five hundred compositions since their founding in 2001, ICE transcends the concept of a performing group. They are patrons, presenters, and educators as well as performers.

For their program at Brevard, ICE dispatched three members to present an eclectic concert of works from the past half century: violinist Jennifer Curtis, hornist David Byrd-Marrow, and percussionist/director of production Ross Karre. This slim trio provided the audience with an astonishing variety of aesthetics, textures, and instrumental colors.

ICE is known for its innovative, interdisciplinary concert structures, and this presentation didn’t disappoint. To set the atmosphere, each piece was provided with its own contemporary lighting design – a modest addition, but one that eased the formality of the golden concert hall.

After a brief introduction by Karre, the ensemble wasted no time in putting its educational component on display. Joining the three ICE members on stage were several Brevard students who had participated in a workshop with the group. Together, they performed selections from Christian Wolff‘s 2006 Microexercises. Like much of Wolff’s work, these short movements make minimal use of music notation, allowing performers to make many interpretive and even compositional decisions.

The students began hesitantly, but soon found their stride alongside the confident and gentle trio.

The subsequent program was attractive and theatrical. Interleaved between standalone pieces were the six movements of László Dubrovay‘s Six Duets for Violin and Percussion (1971). Each movement of this fascinating piece seemed like a variation of the previous movement, providing the program with a satisfying arc. Karre and Curtis navigated this piece’s gem-like facets with ease and beauty.

The highlight of the first half was certainly Arthur Kampela‘s 2006 “Not I” for solo horn and lamp. Yes, you read that correctly: the hornist plays both his horn and a lamp.

A breathtaking, breakneck showpiece, “Not I” asks the performer to speak, breathe, buzz, gasp, and squeal at high speed, both into the horn and free from it, all while switching a lamp on and off with absolute precision. Byrd-Marrow was nothing short of brilliant, and the audience responded accordingly. What a performance!

The second half opened with a short improvisation by Curtis and Byrd-Marrow. Their spontaneous composition lacked a bit of clarity and formal coherence, which is a common pitfall for improvisers. Nevertheless, both performers’ musical ideas were exceedingly beautiful, and my ear enjoyed the melodious respite from the program’s otherwise esoteric sound world.

Throughout the second half the audience was treated to a wealth of percussion colors. Rivaling the lamp for most entertaining prop was the submerged microphone in Vinko Globokar‘s “Dialog Über Erde” (1994). In this delicate, colorful piece, Karre subjected a variety of bells and gongs to a treatment in a tub of water. The sound from the submerged microphone was mixed so well that the audience heard a seamless transition from the bells’ acoustic sound to their amplified sound as Karre dipped his hands in and out of the tub. Kudos to Brevard’s sound engineers!

To close the program, the Brevard students returned to the stage for Pauline Oliveros‘s “The Well and the Gentle” (1985). Karre explained that Oliveros is a friend and mentor to the ensemble, and that her work in structured improvisation has deeply influenced the ensemble’s activities. The students tackled the challenge of guided improvisation extremely well, and provided a beautiful and lush finish to this eclectic program.

I have one complaint about ICE’s concert: the two-page ICE program entry in Brevard’s hefty program booklet (magazine? textbook?) was mostly empty space, and some important information was lacking. No program notes, no dates of composition, and no composer first names. Most puzzlingly, there were short bios for each of the three performers, but no bio or description of ICE as a whole. This important group’s many and varied activities surely deserve a paragraph. In a large and expensive program booklet at a prestigious music festival, this much missing information is unacceptable.

In any case, interested customers were provided with enough information for a web search, and ICE provided enough musical inspiration for us to look a little deeper into these composers and compositions. A successful concert all around. I hope that Brevard continues to provide time and support to contemporary music. Bravi!