The superb c/o Orchestra signals with Divertissement, their debut album for BIS a bright future

Jacque Ibert’s subversively anarchic Divertissement is a six-movement suite of incidental music that the French composer wrote in 1930 for Eugene Labiche’s farce The Italian Straw Hat.

The hat of the title, meant for a groom to wear at his wedding, is eaten by a horse at the start of the play, setting in motion a chaotic series of comic twists and turns that Ibert turns into a bizarre musical romp in which snippets of Mendelssohn, Ravel, Debussy, Boulez, Wagner, and Satie keep insanely comic off-kilter company with each other.

The Nocturne could be used as film music for a Gallic thriller starring your favorite French star. The Valse parodies the vulgarity or the inspired brilliance of three-quarter time ditties, depending of the provenance. The Cortège deceives he unsuspecting listener into thinking that a funeral march is about to happen, that is until Ibert turns it into a joyful romp that hovers between Mendelssohn and cacophony.  The opening Introduction, the insanely Parade, and the rollicking Finale bring memories of silent film clowns.

Ibert’s music is brilliantly orchestrated, inventively melodic, and fiendishly funny in its satire of any musical fad and fashion that surfaced during the composer’s lifetime.

Unbeknownst to me until I first heard his music in this album, Jean Émile Auguste Bernard was a late Romantic French composer. Bernard – not to be confused with his namesake the painter Émile Bernard, composed his delightful Divertissement for chamber orchestra as an uncharacteristically light-hearted, often playful work, especially for an artist who made his living as a church organist. The three-movement offers countless solo opportunities to the woodwinds of the marvelous c/o Orchestra.

Béla Bartók’s Divertimento is a mid-career, three-movement work for string orchestra composed on the brink of World War II.

Bartók was a friend and musical protégée of Paul Sacher, the founder of the Swiss chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester, which commissioned Bartók to compose the Divertimento, a 23-minutes short but nevertheless complex work which the composer wrote in the space of two weeks.

Even though Bartók felt a bit like fish out of water away from his birth country, his mood was cautiously optimistic and his music for this intriguing composition reflects it, especially in the energetically brisk first and final movements. The middle Adagio gives hints of the angst that permeated a great number of the Hungarian master’s oeuvre, giving this  Divertimento a sometimes serious tone not often associated with the genre.

American composer Michael Ippolito’s soberly titles three of the four movements of his Divertimento: Con moto, Minuetto, Allegro, etc. But then he sneaks up on us with the work’s second movement, which he titles Aria burlesca, and which he deceptively begins with sweet figurations from the woodwinds. Then, suddenly, the music purposely stumbles and there is a thump from the percussion, which in a comic opera could signal the buffo bass drunkenly tripping on a piece of furniture and falling. Then we know that we are treading a mine field of comedy-in-music in which anything goes. And it does.

The third movement – a Minuet and Allegro Maestoso – sounds like a movement from a classical symphony as if Old Papa Haydn had composed under the influence of some illegal substance. The harmonies follow each other in topsy-turvy fashion, though they make perfectly good, if humorous, sense. The raucous music is all of a piece and enormous fun.

The final movement starts as a consonant Adagio that suddenly turns into a fugue in the strings with hiccups from the brass and burps from a dyspeptic timpani. Here and there nobly melodic phrases pop up that deceive one once more into thinking that the composer might be getting serious on us. But no, Ippolito is not deadly serious but lively comical and equipped with major chops as a seriously gifted musical artist, which goes to show that humor in any art form is one of the most difficult things to accomplish.

Throughout the CD the superbly enterprising, conductor-less c/o Orchestra plays brilliantly, with equal participation from all thirty of its members, signaling with Divertissement, their debut album for BIS that their creative future in our new-normal, post-pandemic musical world looms brightly.