You’d think the composer Matthias Pintscher — who had a concert devoted to his work at the Phillips Collection on Thursday night — might be familiar to Washington music lovers by now. Christoph Eschenbach opened the first subscription concert of his National Symphony tenure, in 2010, with a major work by Pintscher, the “Herodiade-Fragmente.” And Pintscher himself conducted a concert that included one of his own works at the National Orchestral Institute in 2011.
But there’s a disconnect between contemporary composers and audiences. Even when a composer is as good-looking, articulate and talented as the 41-year-old Pintscher, a couple of isolated performances aren’t enough to breed familiarity. And because of the international and anonymous tone of the biographies managers write about their artists, audiences reading about Pintscher in the Phillips Collection program had no way of knowing he had ever had anything played in Washington at all.
So Thursday’s concert was a welcome (re)introduction to one of Europe’s leading lights. The Phillips Collection’s concert series focusing on living European composers is a fine complement to the museum’s main mission, and Pintscher is a particularly apt subject; much of his work is influenced by the visual arts. The four pieces performed were variously inspired by Agnes Martin (“on a clear day,” from 2004), Cy Twombley (Studies II and III for “Treatise on the Veil,” from 2005 and 2007), and Joseph Beuys — here channeled in “Derniere espace avec introspecteur,” composed in 1994 for the unusual combination of cello and accordion.
The pieces — performed by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, one of the stalwarts of the new-music scene — were intimately scaled, delicate, detailed and intense; the composer himself, in remarks to the audience, observed that it was a lot of music to hear at one sitting. The first “Treatise on the Veil” study, a trio for violin, viola and cello, so well evoked the little chicken scratches of Twombley’s scribblings, performed with paper clips muting and warping the sound from the strings until they became miniscule little gray lines themselves, that the performance space was reconfigured with the musicians at the center of the room, surrounded by the audience so that everyone could hear what was happening. Pintscher noted to the audience that it really did sound like a drawing, and he was right — like a drawing made by scraping through white paint, scratched out and hard-won, striving to leave a mark.
Pintscher has a remarkably acute visual sense; each of the pieces really did evoke the artist who inspired it. Phyllis Chen gave a calm, lapidary reading of the Agnes Martin work, which was also serene and small but more linear; while both of the “Treatise on the Veil” studies — the second was for violin solo, performed by David Bowlin — were itchy and insistent, the trio gradually swelling as the performers removed first their paper clips, then their mutes, but never quite reaching a normal dynamic level.
And the Beuys piece, a much earlier work, had the plump, craggy opacity of Beuys’s various objects, enhanced by the unfamiliar presence of the accordion, played by the virtuoso William Schimmell. Alongside the cello, the accordion appears a clown in tails, but at the same time a voice of untapped sonorities; it emitted high sustained wires of thin sound at the edge of hearing, as well as fat dark squalls, while the cello (played elegantly by Katinka Kleijn) chattered and skittered around it.
It was an evening of work that was both challenging and worthwhile — probably enlightening to everyone in the Phillips’s crowded music room.