dal niente serves up disturbingly memorable night of new music

Fri Dec 04, 2009 at 11:44 am

By Bryant Manning

It has become a cliché to lump modern music in with the spooky, but fierce new-music advocates dal niente seemed to be doing their best Thursday night to unsettle, disturb and shock. With almost two hours of haunting threadbare music and screaming sound worlds, this bold slate of premieres was one of the more memorable contemporary music concerts of the season.

It helped to be performing in the obscure and austere space of Immanuel Church, an imposing cathedral on a quiet street in Edgewater where founder Kirsten Broberg and her group had yet performed. The chilly acoustics were soupy at times but more than serviceable for this vivid and visceral program emphasizing “Layers and Threads.”

Chicago fixture and Northwestern professor Jay Alan Yim’s ever-growing 20-year-old cycle, Songs in Memory of a Circle, weaved three of its own pieces together, bendin/gthememoryoftime, thirtywordsforsnow and plicity. Marlena Novak’s corrosive video imagery was a real asset to the music being played, where old gray cliffs and black and white waterfalls eventually gave way to psychedelic imagery that recalls the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The more the music destabilized, the more the images disintegrated.

In Yim’s soundscape all the wraiths come out to dance. Grotesque whispers emerged from the speakers and avant-garde clarinetist Gareth Davis provided feverish intensity in this quintet for alto flute, viola, violin and bass. It is a shivering effect when breaths of near motionless flute air flit across a near dark church.

Yet the most disquieting work was Magnus Lindberg’s wondrously repulsive 1983 clarinet and percussion duo Ablauf. There are few clarinetists, one has to imagine, other than Davis who can convincingly pull off such hysterics and mania. Percussive death blows from the back balcony filled the room with convulsive vibrations while Davis responded fitfully. At one point the two men verbally growled at each other and appeared to had gone stark raving mad. Yet there was no eye-rolling at such bizarre theatrics since it all felt so savagely entangled into Lindberg’s score.

For the second half of the program, the eclectic violinist Austin Wulliman soloed admirably in Calices, a new work from the files of dal niente favorite Kaija Saariaho. Taken from the material of the Finn’s 1994 violin concerto, this work has all the built-in stage bravura for the soloist but is boiled down to a combustible violin and piano duo. Its flexible lyricism was a fresh-aired alternative to the bat-and-cave grimness of the Lindberg and Yim.

The increasingly prolific Broberg also premiered her Origins, a stunning and picturesque five-movement work for mixed wind and strings. Davis was yet again a prominent player and his liquid lines in the opening movement “tendrils” showed an instrumentalist with a bottomless toolbox. The quiet spells of “in stillness” and “murmur” were autumn and winter vividly characterized, and Laura Weiner’s swelling horn calls amid a flurry of buzzing strings provided, at last, the program’s much needed sunlight. Conductor Michael Lewanski kept the large chamber ensemble in tight accord.

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