New Music, Vintage Film, Modern Relevance, at Santa Barbara’s Lobero

In the imaginary would-have-been world without COVID, the illustrious and challenge-savoring Paris-based Ensemble intercontemporain would have made its debut in the 805 in June of 2020, when the group and its director, composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, were slated as the central focus of the Ojai Music Festival. Alas, the lockdown intervened and Pintscher did his level best to present a makeshift streaming program.

Ensemble intercontemporain performs a new score for the silent film Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews) | Credit: Courtesy

This Saturday night (January 28) at the Lobero Theatre, the ensemble — founded by the late, great Pierre Boulez in 1973 and long considered one of the world’s superlative contemporary music groups — finally seals the 805 debut deal, made possible by UCSB Arts & Lectures.

Pintscher and company will present a unique program featuring a new film score by noted Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth (also a should-have-been star in the 2020 Ojai program) for the rediscovered 1924 silent film Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews).

Directed by Hans Karl Breslauer as a satirical jab at the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, The City Without Jews existed only in fragmentary state until a copy of the complete film surfaced in a flea market in 2015. Neuwirth, noted for her operas (including one based on David Lynch’s Lost Highway) and politically-motivated themes, took on the task of creating a fresh score, partly inspired by a desire to address a return of anti-Semitism in social and political circles, globally, in the current day. She has commented that an underlying goal was to “say no to the rise of hatred.”

Ensemble intercontemporain has covered a wide swath of music of a modern bent, including last year’s release of minimalist Steve Reich’s music for a film co-created by Gerhard Richter and a 2021 recording of Pintscher’s work.

As for Pintscher himself, the inspired musician is no stranger in Santa Barbara, having ventured out to the Music Academy of the West in 2013 and in 2019, as an educator and composer-conductor. He had a memorable first impact in 2013, when the Academy Orchestra performed his complex yet somehow accessible 30-minute work bereshit, which he described to me as being “about the creation of everything, including the creation of sound. Where does it come from? What is the primordial condition of sound and how is it part of our bodies.”

In another interview a few years ago, he reflected back on his Santa Barbara debut. “I remember that in my concert, we played Pulcinella and a very challenging, complex piece — bereshit — by myself; a long piece, 30 minutes. And the public went nuts over it. This is probably something that must have felt like an asteroid landing on Santa Barbara, but people gave it all their listening capacity. It was actually a huge success. There is, let’s call it an aggressive open mindset in Santa Barbara.”

At that moment, he was just preparing to start up his directorship of the Ensemble intercontemporain, a pivotal point in his life’s story. He recalled that “they wanted a musical brain and not only a conductor or composer, but someone who could stand up for the entire organization and shape it, and redefine the vision, keep it moving forward — whatever this means…

“We have the blessing of Boulez. When he asked me to take that job, he was really holding my hand. It’s a very significant moment in my life. He looked into my eyes and said `Please, help us take the Ensemble and do it all different from what I did.’”

Now in his final season at the helm of the Ensemble intercontemporain, Pintscher rightly asserts his pride in the group. “We’re really in a state where we can do anything now,” he said. “There is so much trust, love and competence and artistry, and the sense of representing the diversity of styles and ideas and positions. They’re absolutely ready now to showcase all of that. It’s not about necessarily their identity in the past or my preferences.”

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