The Ensemble intercontemporain is undoubtedly one of the world’s outstanding New Music ensembles, and certainly the most long-lived, celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding by Pierre Boulez next year. Its thirty-one full-time professional musicians were supplemented for this North American tour by an additional half dozen virtuosi. From the very attack of the throaty oboe in Edgard Varèse’s Octandre – nearly a century old, yet still so “new” – until the last Noces-like kling of the nine players of Boulez’s formidable sur Incises (1996-98), the audience seemed fascinated and even mesmerized by the unusual sounds and musical events taking place on the stage of Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This concert was the second of two presented by Ensemble intercontemporain for the Carolina Performing Arts series.

In his third season as music director of the Ensemble intercontemporain is the German-born New Yorker, composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, who also serves on the composition faculty of the Juilliard School. Speaking to a packed room of listeners in the Heavner Gallery on the second story of the Memorial Hall, Maestro Pintscher was modest and down-to-earth, admitting he loves to hear how others perform his music and that he “sweats” the classics more than his own music. Describing his way of composing as a “gathering together of musical ideas” rather than a drawing of inspiration from a muse, he stated that “the notation is the conclusion of a long process of thought, of pulling together the music.” We were able to appreciate two very different examples of the results of this process on the stage during the performances of bereshit, for 28 musicians and beyond (a system of passing) for a single flutist.

Opening the concert with a more than symbolic tribute to one of the progenitors of the musical avant-garde, Pintscher led an impeccable performance of Octandre (1923) by French-born composer, Edgard Varèse (1883-1965). Although only about seven minutes long, this work in three movements encompasses a sonic world far from tonality, yet using tonal references. Sudden bursts of musical activity separated by longer spaces of calm led to a constant sense of anticipation for the auditor.

The second work on the program was Pintscher’s own bereshit, which in Hebrew is the first word of the Bible – “In a beginning.” Although I was not able to ascertain whether the music followed a literal interpretation of the Creation, this long work was the most interesting of the evening. Premiered in 2013 by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and using such unusual instruments as the alto flute, contrabass clarinet, and contrabassoon, all of which extend the range of their respective families downward, and the piccolo which extends upward, the work begins and hovers around the lowest treble clef “F” played almost inaudibly by the contrabass in harmonics over a nearly inaudible roll of a gigantic tam-tam. For a long period corresponding to the Biblical “void,” the musicians hovered around this “F,” tentatively approaching other notes and the audience straining to assign meaning to the panoply of strange and wonderful sounds.

It is characteristic of this work that there are many minutely subtle listening experiences, which in turn causes the audience to be more actively involved in listening – never have I seen as quiet or as attentive an audience! Going from almost silent anticipation to exuberant bells and gongs and from whimpering muted trumpets to a reedy raspy buzz at the bottom of the sound spectrum enhanced by the oriental “nipple” gongs, this was a fascinating and sensual experience, lasting just over half an hour.

After intermission, following the example set by Varèse with his 1936 Density 21.5 for Solo Flute (referring to the density of platinum, the material of which some flutes are made) and Claude Debussy in his Syrinx (1913), flutist Sophie Cherrier, alone on stage, held the audience spell-bound for a quarter of an hour as she introduced us to beyond (a system of passing) (2013) for solo flute, also by Pintscher, in which novel ways of creating sounds are explored, some nearly inaudible, some involving only the slapping of chosen keys to give us a pitched percussive effect. Other times we explored the worlds of multi-phonics, flutter-tonguing and harmonically inspired alternate fingerings. This again was a fascinating work whose repeated finger-slapped Gs set up the feeling of a dominant harmony, which indeed yielded the expected closing C.

The monumental sur Incises by Pierre Boulez, written in 1998 to celebrate the 90th birthday of Paul Sacher, Swiss conductor and founder of the Basel Chamber Orchestra that had commissioned many major works of the 20th century, is based on the musical notes generated by Sacher’s name. Written for three pianos and three harps (mounted on acoustical platforms), alternating like a layer cake, with three percussionists in the background, surrounded by a huge panoply of pitched instruments from a gigantic marimba to tiny crotales (finger cymbals) and from steel drums to tubular chimes, this was the high point of the concert, although the dominance of the piano sound was less pleasing to my personal taste than the multiphonic diversity of bereshit. Nonetheless, it was a monumental work of striking diversity and color, ending in brilliant bell-like chords, reminding one of the ending of Stravinsky’s colorful ballet, Les Noces. The audience gave the performers a well-deserved standing ovation!