Chicago Early Music Festival opens despite volcanic impact on scheduled artists

Thu Apr 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Guillaume Dufay

Chicago’s first-ever Early Music Festival began with a stutter Tuesday night, courtesy of a volcano called Eyjafjallajokul, but the series has quickly recovered and gotten up to cruising speed.

With a nice variety of artists and events and a creative way of piggybacking on several presentations that were already in the works, this ambitious operation spearheaded by the Department of Cultural Affairs (and running through April 25) enriches the city and the audiences who are lucky enough to partake in them.

Based on the model of the long-running World Fest, events are planned for venues large and small across the city, and are mostly free, with a few of the premium concerts charging for admission. Artists range from young students at some of the city’s academic training grounds to well-established groups performing challenging programs.

Tuesday’s opening concert was performed at the homebase for the presenter, the Chicago Cultural Center, where the Tiffany dome was recently refurbished to its early splendor.

The concept of the inaugural program, “Being Dufay,” was intriguing: take the 15th century’s most mellifluous composer (he has been called the Schubert of his age) and present his vocal music in an electronic score with voice.

Sound artist Ambrose Field was unable to attend, grounded by the travel ban due to ashy fallout from the Icelandic volcano. But he resourcefully came up with a special high-definition, surround-sound version of the piece, which made Tuesday’s audience the first to ever experience it in this form.

It was a quite stunning tour-de-force, which gave an insight into Dufay while standing on its own as a realized piece of 21st-century computer-generated sound forms. The video disc comprised a swirling electronic score incorporating the voice of the celebrated early music tenor John Potter with a video projection that was as organic and original as the score.

The sound and light reflected off the venerable space, enhancing the experience in unexpected ways and one was caught up in the interplay between beautifully rendered plainsong and sharply etched musical and visual conceptions.

Unfortunately the mesmerizing experience ended in a prosaic technical snafu which cut off the last section of the work suddenly and permanently, leaving the audience stranded and uncertain. The Department of Cultural Affairs’ Helen Vasey put the best face on it, and moved to the second part of the program.

This presented an improvised performance by Chicago-based  musicians James Falzone and Jason Stein, clarinets, Fred Lonberg-Holm cello and electronics, and Frank Rosaly percussion and electronics.

The concept was to run some 4th Century Ambrosian plainchant into a modern  jazz-inflected improvisation and the result was at times quite striking, beginning with a church-like bell and Eastern modalities extending into the whirls, squeaks and chattering of  contemporary avant-garde jazz. All four musicians were fine with a standout solo by cellist Lonberg-Holm and some very strenuous contortions by Frank Rosaly on percussion instruments large and small.

Wednesday’s concert at St. James Cathedral offered more traditional early music, featuring eight sections of Vivaldi’s iconic L’ Éstro Armonico performed by Chicago’s premier original-instrument performance group Baroque Band.  The European flight ban robbed the evening of the promised violin soloist Nadja Zwiener, but at the last moment Rachel Barton Pine stepped in and more than made up for the loss.

The group of eight musicians performed Vivaldi’s early calling-card collection for strings and continuo in the original scoring with one instrument to a part, and the individual instrumentalists switched positions for each piece, providing a nicely varied presentation which never got into a rut.

Vivaldi’s music is varied enough in key and instrumental combinations to make for an absorbing evening, and the group played with an almost silky tone at times, the lines clearly delineated and the always innovative melodies spun out with great style. The discreet direction of Garry Clarke held things together neatly.

Some notable highlights: the duetting of Clarke and Barton Pine in No. 11 which also featured a fine cello solo by the redoubtable Craig Trompeter; and No. 10, a work perhaps most familiar to modern audiences in Bach’s transcription as the four-harpsichord concerto BWV 1065. Clarke noted that the Bach piece would be a part of the group’s final subscription concert coming this June, which will be something to look forward to from this sterling band of players.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chicago Early Music Festival opens despite volcanic impact on scheduled artists”

  1. Posted Apr 23, 2010 at 3:20 am by Successfully Not Being Dufay in Chicago! « John Potter – Musician and Writer – Blog

    […] a technical glitch towards the end but worked sufficently well for the Chicago Press to call it a ’stunning tour de force‘.   We were very sorry not to be there, but hope that we can come back next year with our […]

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