MusicNOW closes year with lively mix of young composers

Tue Dec 14, 2010 at 1:25 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Just by definition, concerts devoted to new music are often variable feasts.

This season’s first MusicNOW concert in October offered mixed rewards but the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new-music series was back on track Monday night at the Harris Theater. In fact, this year-end program, largely focused on relatively unknown young composers, was one of the finest of the last two seasons, serving up a fast-moving evening of jazz- and rock-inspired works that seemed to effortlessly traverse musical genres.

Jim Gailloreto

Having the celebrated jazz saxophonist Jim Gailloreto to open the evening certainly proved an attention grabber. Standing in the Harris Theater’s center aisle, Gailloretto performed Edmund Campion’s Corail, a work in which the composer attempts to find a common language between the live sax lines and a busy electronic backdrop of electronic sounds.

Gailloreto’s evocative soprano saxophone explored a compelling range, from pensive nocturnal musing to more straightahead bravura while the composer manipulated the interactive software conjuring an array of percussive drumming, wails, squeaks and squawks. Unlike many electroacoustic works, the blending of contrasted sounds made for a fascinating duet as the music grew more complex and frenzied before fading down to silence.

Derek Bermel’s Three Rivers takes a more traditional jazz spin with its dozen-member ensemble of brass, winds and strings. Written originally for a group of classical and jazz musicians, Bermel’s piece freely mixes notated music and “guided improvisations,” segueing from an easy-going bluesy swing into an array of tempo and rhythmic gear-shifts with extended solos for saxophone, trumpet, clarinet and drums. Strings tended to disappear in tuttis, but conductor Cliff Colnot kept rhythms clear and provided strong forward impetus with fine playing by the ensemble.

Paola Prestini’s Spell offered a lyrical centerpiece. Scored for clarinet, cello and percussion, the music presents a mellow introspection nicely balanced with an unsettled underlying tension.

Tangled Loops by Jason Eckhart serves up a more unapologetic virtuosic display but so compelling was the heavy-metal assault of Jeremy Ruthrauff’s hard-charging soprano saxophone that it was impossible not to respond. Pianist Amy Briggs lent equally impassioned support.

Cynthia Yeh

Cynthia Yeh was a prominent, hard-working presence all night, particularly in the closer by Steve Mackey. His Micro-Concerto, cast in five sections, is ostensibly a percussion concerto and while the soloist is often spotlit, just as often she is playing with the rest of the ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

Mackey’s music often seems more concerned with featuring its rock and jazz inspiration in large capital letters than about actually wielding those populist elements in a skillful way that creates compelling and substantial concert music.

Due in large part to Yeh’s understated virtuosity, Mackey’s Micro-Concerto made a stronger impression Monday than many of his works. Principal percussionist of the Chicago Symphony, Yeh’s understated bravura on a variety of toys, kitchen utensils and “‘legit’ instruments,” as Mackey put it, evoked a variety of timbral colors and sounds from the pointillist opening to a delicately shimmering vibraphone solo, hard-driving section with bongos and metal percussion, and a lyrical interlude for marimba and cello. Yeh’s ensemble colleagues were equally stellar co-protagonists in a superb performance conducted by Colnot.

The evening was curated by the CSO’s two youthful composers in residence, Anna Clyne and Mason Bates, who once again as hosts proved natural and engaging, as were the young composers in the house who were on hand to talk about their music.


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