Composer Stucky, Chicago Chamber Musicians team up for bracing afternoon of music

Mon May 24, 2010 at 10:51 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Composer Steven Stucky’s works were performed Sunday afternoon by the Chicago Chamber Musicians.

It seemed like summer arrived Sunday in Chicago—somehow skipping spring—with high 80s temperatures, and Millennium Park teeming with people enjoying the warm weather.

Across Michigan Avenue, those looking for artistic diversions could find them as well, and a surprisingly large crowd turned out at the Cultural Center for a varied and generous program by the Chicago Chamber Musicians.

The second and final of CCM’s Composer Perspectives events this season brought composer Steven Stucky to Preston Bradley Hall, and the 60-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s preconcert interview and introductions added interesting background to his curated program.

Two Stucky works were performed, along with music by composers who influenced him, musically (Debussy and Ravel) and personally (Witold Lutoslawski).

Stucky’s Dialoghi for solo cello was written in 2006 for a cellist friend Elinor Frey, the work making use of a six-note motif that corresponds to the letters of her first name.

After a lyrical statement of the theme, the music turns more pensive and harmonically crunched, leading to agitated figures and extreme contrast between hushed notes, sharp pizzicatos and violent outbursts. Dialoghi is a superb showpiece for cello with expressive depth as well as solo bravura and Clancy Newman’s tour de force performance brought out the poetry as well as the full-metal virtuosity.

Stucky’s Piano Quartet made a more mixed impression. Cast in one movement, the work is crafted with characteristic skill but lacks a strong thematic profile and sufficient contrast with aggressive motoric bursts amid a prevailing dour introspection. There’s too much unison writing and not enough opportunities for the individual players to have their fleeting moments in the spotlight. Violinist Jasmine Lin, cellist Newman, pianist Meng-Chieh Liu and guest violist Anthony Devroye of the Avalon Quartet provided gleaming, intensely committed advocacy but I can’t say this is one of Stucky’s more convincing works.

Debussy and Ravel’s well-honed craft and their mining of the past as well as looking toward the future, Stucky said, were among his early inspirations. Debussy’s Violin Sonata, the composer’s concise final work, is a paradox with an expressive richness contained within a straitened harmonic palette, and concise angularity. Lin and Liu offered a powerful, boldly projected performance but one wished for more light and shade at times from the violinist with less tension and more evocation in the brief moments of introspection.

The performance of Ravel’s Piano Trio from violinist Joseph Genualdi, Newman and Liu was even more impassioned yet still found room for the sadness and yearning.

Joseph Genualdi

Genualdi and Liu provided the high point of the afternoon with the Partita by Lutoslawski. The Polish composer was a father figure of sorts to Stucky, and the 1984 work meant a great deal to Lutoslawski, its outward neo-Baroque form and titles dressing for what feels like a personal and political statement.

Genualdi attacked this music with daunting vehemence and intensity, bringing out the violent aggressive moments as well as the spare elliptical qualities and jarring harmonic turns. Liu provided equally commanding and incisive keyboard support.

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