Clyne’s moving elegy a highlight of MusicNOW’s local premieres

Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 9:30 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Anna Clyne's "Within Her Arms" was performed Monday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

For its second concert of the season, MusicNow served up a generous lineup of works Monday night to a packed Harris Theater where all five represented composers were on hand to introduce their works.

Like all the music heard in this second season program of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new-music series, Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms was a local premiere. Scored for 15 strings, she wrote the work in the wake of the death of her mother in 2009.

Since coming to the CSO as co-composer in residence, the 31-year-old Clyne has revealed herself as one of the most gifted and compelling young composers of our time.

Within Her Arms is a powerful work, a somber, deeply felt meditation on loss. Crafted with real mastery for strings, Clyne’s work never descends to the sentimental or lachrymose, the music working its way through desolation and painful stabbing violin accents to a sense of hard-won solace and peace.

Much hay was made out of the new dance component twice (once) presented simultaneously with the performance by Hubbard Street Dance. While imaginatively choreographed by Terence Marling and gracefully performed by the Hubbard Street dancers, I found the Terpischorean element a distraction and closed my eyes to better concentrate on Clyne’s music.

This is one of the English composer’s most personal and finest efforts to date, and one could easily see this powerful elegy entering the regular string repertoire.

Equally noteworthy was Aaron Jay Kernis’s song cycle L’Arte delle Danssar (The Art of Dance) The idea of a cycle of four extended  vocal settings based on 14th-century tutelary texts about dancing sounds bizarre, but clearly provided inspiration for Kernis. The first song is largely festive with leaping vocal lines, while the lovely second is cast in Kernis’s most indelible melodic style  The third song is lilting with a fast middle section, and the final setting rounds off the cycle with a resonant expression.

At times one wanted a voice of greater richness and luster, particularly in the upper tessitura, but Carrie Henneman Shaw provided singing of admirable agility and clarity. Kernis’s cycle is resourcefully scored for flute, harp, viola and percussion, and the instrumental writing is most evocative of the text’s antiquity. Premiered just six months ago, Kernis’s cycle deserves the widest possible advocacy.

Anthony Cheung’s music is often allied to words, text and poetry. Despite its somewhat anarchic title, Enjamb, Infuse, Implode is a concise, largely restrained sextet for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Opening with a lyrical piano theme, Cheung’s music suggests a more edgy and impatient Toru Takemitsu with its ebb and flow of fragmented melodic lines and acutely colored timbres. Conductor Christian Macetaru led a superbly nuanced performance that brought out the pointillistic brush strokes of Cheung’s intriguing music.

Lee Hyla was represented with his Dream of Innocent III from 1987 — the least recent work on this program representing the “Academy of Ancient Music” as the composer wryly stated in his spoken remarks. The work was inspired by a Giotto fresco in Assisi that depicts the title pope’s dream of St Francis.

Few composers blend populist and classical elements as fluently and engagingly as Hyla. Despite its clerical inspiration, the work is a hard-charging rock-edged showpiece for amplified cello, backed by piano and percussion. Kenneth Olsen delivered a tour de force performance bringing out the yearning passages as surely as the amped heavy-metal and jazz influences. Pianist Amy Briggs and percussionist Cynthia Yeh provided equally full-tilt support.

The sole clinker of the evening was Julia Wolfe’s Dig Deep. When a conductor is required in a work for string quartet you know you’re in for it. At 15 minutes, this 1995 essay in unvaried rhythm and loud, relentless sawing seemed longer than Parsifal and a lot less redeeming. The CSO members (Yuan-Qing Yu, Susan Synnestvedt, Catherine Brubaker and Kenneth Olsen) maintained unflagging stamina and intensity, and hopefully won’t wind up in traction.

Unfortunately, this season the MusicNOW series is continuing its policy of failing to provide program notes beyond a skimpy flyer with titles, dates of composition and participating musicians. I’m sure there were many people in the Harris Theater Monday besides music critics that would have appreciated some information about the music in written form beyond the brief verbal introductions and hard-to-read projections in white agate type.

Posted in Performances


One Response to “Clyne’s moving elegy a highlight of MusicNOW’s local premieres”

  1. Posted Dec 14, 2011 at 2:58 pm by eddie

    Love your insightful reviews, just stop using the word Terpsichorean. You have used it in three reviews in the last 4 months. I need a new obscure adjective to banter around after reading your articles.