Fulcrum Point marks 12 years with a bravura program of new music

Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 3:30 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Trumpeter Stephen Burns, trombonist Andy Baker, and tubist Rex Martin perform Stefan Freund’s “Metal” Wednesday night at Thorne Auditorium. Photo: Michael Boyd.

The Fulcrum Point New Music Project celebrated its 12th anniversary Wednesday with a Tapas of a benefit concert featuring some striking successes of their past along with inklings of things to come.

Last year’s composer in residence, the wildly eclectic Randall Woolf, was represented by two works and this year’s occupant of the position, Mischa Zupko, debuted with a dynamic piano-and-electronics piece that bodes well for future achievements. All performances were first-rate across the board.

Bookending the performances were sections of a bravura brass piece, Metal by Stefan Freund (a member of Alarm Will Sound). The lineup of instruments tells it all: Stephen Burns, trumpet, Kevin Hartman, trumpet, Greg Flint, horn, Andy Baker, trombone, and Rex Martin, tuba. The opening of Wednesday’s program was a perfect place for the fanfares and jazzy fun provided by this brass diversion.

Woolf’s Franz Schubert, by way of contrast, was written for a string quartet and featured traditional harmonies and quasi-Schubertian melodies cut up into phrases, syncopated and energetic, which then unwound in an original and invigorating manner.

Zupko’s Shunt offererd the dynamic juxtaposition of a live piano with an electronically manipulated piano-based soundtrack. The result was a work for “super-piano with extra-terrestrial dimensions,” as the composer put it. Beginning powerfully, Zupko at the concert grand matched the electronics beat for beat in an episodic composition that fused science-fiction scoring with all kinds of electronic effects.

Elizabeth Brown’s Arcana was another juxtaposition of a live, natural instrument–in this case the flute–with an electronic soundtrack. The droning, almost New Age electronics provided a bed of sound over which the live flute floated beatifically. An electronic evocation of the song of the whales dissolved into other animal-like sounds and darker metallic clashes which soon become threatening. Mary Stolper, an iconic performer of this kind of material, was majestically in control and her flute hovered like a bird over some bleak industrial landscape.

Woolf’s second piece, Light up the Sky, provided another example of live music-making smacking up against an electronic soundscape. Julia Ghica, the violin soloist, was excellent in every way.  With poise and focus she negotiated the difficult score and successfully integrated her live performance with the prerecorded sounds of hip-hop, drum and bass, scratch and other funky material. To these ears the violin emerged the winner in this uneven contest.

At this point in the program, six students from the Woodlawn Elementary Community School trooped onstage with traditional West African drums and proceeded to bring down the house with an energetic burst of percussive energy; a lively way to spotlight Fulcrum Point’s invaluable outreach programs to Chicago-area schools.

In another juxtaposition piece Yang Wei on pipa (a Chinese form of lute) provided the soundtrack to a modern dance performance. The dancer (the marvelous Mollie Mock)  began in the center with her back to the audience but soon asserted herself and brought her dance interpretations all the way out to audience level. It was a matter of East and West, with Melissa Thodos’ choreography representing traditional western modernism.

The performance of Yi Zhi Shan, a work by Law Wing-Fai from 1996, presented Chinese modernism tempered with traditionalism. The pipa, in a dramatic burst of virtuoso frenzy, took the field at the end.

The marimba duo of Jeff Handley and Brandon Podjasek performed Nagoya Marimbas (1994) by Steve Reich, This short piece is in Reich’s early, accessible and ebullient mode and was just another tasty morsel in this bountiful program.

A word on the presentation: Thorne Auditorium at Northwestern University’s Law School provided excellent acoustics for this program, and a high-quality sound system to boot. The slide projections were apt and evocative, and a very ambitious program went off without a hitch. Congratulations to all involved.

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