For twenty years now, the Ithaca-based group Ensemble X has made music together. A formidable collection of performers, the group focuses on new music from the early 20th century up to the present with a particular emphasis on the last twenty years. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky founded the group and was at its helm for the majority of its existence with Professor Xak Bjerken taking over for him in 2014.
Since its inception, the Ensemble has doubled in size, from eleven members in 1997 to twenty core performers in 2017, with other musicians floating in and out of the group as performances dictate. One of Ensemble X’s founding principles was a commitment to partnership across the Ithaca music scene; as such, there is healthy representation of both Cornell and Ithaca College faculty among the group’s ranks. “Ensemble X was the first group to formalize the "hands across the gorge" interaction between IC and CU, [which] seems like such an obvious one, since we are all friends, and share similar interests,” says Bjerken.
Reinvigorated with new members and a fresh commitment to their founding principles, Ensemble X is celebrating its 20th anniversary as any group of musicians would: through performance. The group is slated to perform four times during the 2017-2018 academic year, with the first performance happening in Barnes Hall on Sunday, September 24 at 3pm.
In selecting music for the 20th anniversary series, Bjerken says that the group took a different approach for each concert. The first is a “portrait concert” of composer Luciano Berio. Bjerken says Berio’s music “combines virtuosity with differing approaches to folk transcription… he embraced history in his music and relished in pushing the limits of virtuosity and musical language.”
The second is a tribute to former director and founder, Steven Stucky, who passed away in February of 2016. Stucky’s Catholic faith influenced the musical direction and aesthetic of the group. His tribute concert is sure to be emotional for the Ensemble, “featuring a beautiful choral piece by Steve, and music of composers he [loved] and championed, including Webern, Elizabeth Ogonek, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and David Lang.” Stucky is also attributed with giving the group its name. “The name Ensemble X was a placeholder, created by Steve Stucky in our first meeting...and then it stuck.”
The third concert features music by Roman Palester, a Polish composer that Bjerken believes needs more recognition in the United States, while their fourth and final concert of the season is sure to be, as Bjerken puts it, a blowout: “...three major works written in the last 20 years for soloist and sinfonietta, conducted by guest Tim Weiss from Oberlin. We include a new piano concerto by Stephen Hartke (a political work called Ship of State); a now classic piece that Ensemble X gave the East coast premiere of, John Adams' Gnarly Buttons; and the amazing surround-sound work by Jonathan Harvey entitled Bird Concerto with Pianosong, in which the sounds of bird song swirl around the audience, controlled by joysticks. All in all, pretty ambitious, I'd say!”
Bjerken compares selecting Ensemble X’s repertoire to cooking: “it’s like composing a meal.” He prioritizes works that the group feels passionate about, and that students and audience members can connect with. Even when a particular performance highlights one or two of the Ensemble’s members, they make sure to focus on creating a connection between themselves and their audience.
“The strengths of Ensemble X might be [the] grateful friendships that have been created by the players, [and] the fact that when we get together to work, we are all equally excited and invested.” After twenty years of creating music together, Ensemble X is still at the peak of their game, ready to take on a year of exciting performances. As Bjerken says, “it is a particularly exciting time for new music in this town.”