MusicNOW spotlights a pair of American and Hungarian originals

Tue Oct 06, 2009 at 2:57 pm

By Bryant Manning

Frederic Rzewski  [Photo: Michael Wilson]
Frederic Rzewski. Photo by Michael Wilson

Major orchestras serve their communities well when they install annex ensembles to play music too spicy for the white-tie crowd. The New York Philharmonic launched Contact this fall, a new music series featuring seven world premieres slated over four concerts. The LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series has long been a haven for the creativity of living composers. What these series do best, as the New York Philharmonic’s new music director Alan Gilbert has said, is add an element of the unknown.

The Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series is one of the country’s best. Monday night’s season opener at the Harris Theater delivered a lot of the unknown despite not offering much new music from this decade. Instead, the program featured two samples each from a pair of veteran post-war figures who still loom large in today’s contemporary landscape: the American Frederic Rzewski and the Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag.

The innately political Rzewski may have been born in Massachusetts, but study in Europe shaped much of his stylistic development. (He was a protégé of Luigi Dallapiccola). His sprawling chamber Pocket Symphony (2000) was written for Chicago’s own eighth blackbird, but various members of the CSO elected to perform the work straight, leaving whatever theatrics there were to the ‘birds.

Conductor Cliff Colnot tightly led the sextet in this free-form work that gives individual players the liberty of optional cadenzas throughout a quickly changing soundscape—a driving, staccato bass clarinet here, a light tapping of the cello frame there. It wasn’t hard to notice that these mercurial musical ideas had a gradual, alienating effect on the audience—whether evocatively capturing the stillness of a room with the blinds half-drawn or (especially) when the ensemble created the illusion of an oncoming buffalo stampede. These decorative vignettes were certainly compelling on their own, but overall didn’t reward on a larger level.

Prior to this, the fiercely dedicated new-music pianist Amy Briggs stomped her feet as she rendered a Tango-tinged ostinato in Rzewski’s solo Steptangle. The right-hand series of viciously attacked chords filled out the rest of the picture, and it seemed as soon as we adjusted to these weird, dancey patterns, the piece abruptly ended. Briggs is so natural in this music that all the Rzewski admirers could happily let go of the idea that the composer/pianist wasn’t here to perform it himself.

Where Rzewski has composed in unpredictable, often gnarly styles over the years, Kurtag has remained a consistent champion of the small, quiet gesture.  The Hungarian’s economical 3 Pieces for Violin (1979) featured Briggs and violinist Nathan Cole in a wondrously guarded performance that seemed to amplify the silence around them. If you’ve never heard a violin transform sonically into a pan flute, this was your chance. This breathy string playing over the piano’s spacey atmospherics all compacted itself into the sparest of musical moments. Simply stunning. 

Much larger in scope was Kurtag’s Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova, (1976) where soprano Tony Arnold sang 21 heavy-hearted poems of the Russian poet Rimma Dalos.  Arnold brought a feverishly engaged and almost sinister flair to her performance, moving defiantly through sneering songs like Why Should I Not Squeal Like a Pig and You Took My Heart.  The large ensemble behind her featured memorable individual contributions from Hector Rodriguez (horn), Dimitris Marinos (mandolin) and Richard Grimes (cimbalom). Those who had opted for MusicNOW instead of the Lyric Opera’s opening night of Faust got their fine vocal fix after all.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment