Chicago Composers Orchestra closes season in bittersweet fashion with Arvo Pӓrt and three premieres

Sun May 24, 2015 at 1:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Arvo Part's Symphony No. 4 was performed  by the Chicago Composers Orchestra Friday night at St. James Cathedral.

Arvo Pӓrt’s Symphony No. 4 was performed by the Chicago Composers Orchestra Friday night at St. James Cathedral.

Imagine if there was an orchestra in Chicago that performed exclusively new works and music of living composers.

Oddly enough, there is. Founded in 2010 by Randall West and Brian Baxter, the Chicago Composers Orchestra is devoted to performing contemporary music with a special emphasis on premieres and works by Chicago-area composers.

New music premieres are often limited to instrumental, chamber groups and small ensembles, a less costly proposition than works for full orchestra. Consequently one rarely gets the opportunity to hear music by young composers written for orchestral forces.

With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra limiting its exploration of 21st-century music almost entirely to its own composers in residence, the CCO fills a gaping void on the local music scene and serves a crucial, much-needed mission in Chicago.

The Chicago Composers Orchestra closed its season Friday night at St. James Cathedral. Arvo Pӓrt’s Symphony No. 4 was the main work on the program, but CCO’s mission was reflected most strongly in the first half, which offered three world premieres.

Matthew Kasper conducted the Chicago Composers Orchestra Friday night at St. James Cathedral.

Matthew Kasper

The event was something of a bittersweet occasion. This was the final concert for CCO music director Matthew Kasper, who has been appointed assistant conductor of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the Phoenix Youth Symphony. Kasper has clearly built a close artistic partnership with his core musicians over the last five years. The playing was solid, polished and completely responsive to Kasper’s alert direction.

Two of the three premieres mined material from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, though neither does so in an obvious or pastichey way.

Brian Baxter’s Ghost Self is the first section of a planned six-part orchestral work to be called Ghost Continent. The title reflects the idea that there is a “ghost self” within each human being hidden beneath the surface; for the composer that signifies the story of his own adoption.

Despite the personal inspiration, Ghost Self is neither treacly nor sentimental. After an arresting timpani opening the music proceeds in dramatic fashion, with a radiant lyrical theme ultimately emerging in strings and percussion. After the music returns to the stormy section, there is a reprise of the optimistic theme led by trumpet, and the music slows down for a quiet, uneasy coda. Baxter’s concise work is smartly scored and makes effective impact with economy of means.

Scott Scharf’s slow render draws on the middle movement of the Bach First Brandenburg Concerto, recast in slowly pulsing variations. Despite careful direction by Kasper, Scharf’s music feels insufficiently varied and goes on rather long for its lack of compelling incident.

The largest and most impressive of the three premieres was Brandon Harrington’s Rest. Written after the death of the composer’s grandfather in December, the four movements reflect the deceased’s faith in an afterlife, which is also viewed through the composer’s more agnostic prism.

The first section, “Departure,” seems to reflect in Strauss-like fashion, the struggle of the body against death, with the rocking string figures growing increasingly agitated, set against urgent horn calls. A solo piano introduces “Lux Aeterna” with the strings later supporting the piano’s rising and falling lines. “Anxiety” follows attacca with roiling strings set against eruptive brass and winds as the music grows to a violent climax. The final section,  “Farewell,” offers some degree of solace–a questioning clarinet appears less certain–and the solo piano returns to have a peaceful final statement.

Harrington’s Rest is a strong, original and communicative work, crafted with assurance and expressive power. Kasper and the orchestra gave this premiere vital and committed advocacy.

Arvo Pӓrt’s Symphony No. 4 was written in 2008, 37 years after its predecessor, during which time the Estonian composer’s style had changed dramatically from a rather academic serialism to his tintinnabulatory idiom.

Subtitled “Los Angeles” the work was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered by the orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2009. The symphony was dedicated to wealthy Russian businessman and philanthropist Mikhail Khodorovsky—a clear slap by the composer at Vladimir Putin, who many believe had jailed Khodorovsky on trumped up, politically motivated corruption charges.

Cast in three connected movements, the work is a virtual compendium of Pӓrt’s mature style of sacred minimalism. Spare, monastic string phrases are set against chimes and timpani, as the music alternates between slow-moving string themes and more turbulent brass and wind outbursts. The composer wields his argument with great facility and effective understatement in a work of quiet yet shimmering power—ultimately achieving a hard-won transcendence as the music ends with a lone bell toll slowly fading into silence.

Kasper showed complete sympathy with Pӓrt’s elusive idiom. The young conductor maintained keen dramatic tension through the rests and widely spaced phrases, marking the subtle dynamics clearly and effectively. The orchestra responded to their out-going music director with polished, concentrated playing that was acutely sensitive to Kasper’s attentive direction.

Chicago Composers Orchestra will hold its CCO Club Night at Constellation 8:30 p.m. June 14.

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