Anaphora offers two compelling world premieres at Green Mill

Mon Nov 28, 2011 at 4:08 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Allen Ginsberg’s poem,, “Howl” was the inspiration for George Flynn’s “American Howl Quartet,” which had its world premiere by Anaphora Sunday at The Green Mill.

Thanksgiving Day weekend is traditionally a somewhat fallow period for classical music in Chicago. But the enterprising new-music ensemble Anaphora brightened a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon with a compelling and well-balanced program at The Green Mill, which offered two significant world premieres.

The most striking music on tap turned out, somewhat surprisingly, to be the most traditional and directly communicative. Gregory Hutter’s Companion Piece, scored for clarinet and string quartet, is cast in a single movement. Beginning in hushed violins, Hutter’s work is imbued with a Barber-like vein of dark introspection and rises from a heart-easing lyricism into a surprising emotional depth and expressive weight before descending again to a reprise of the quiet opening bars.

The repertoire is not teeming with contemporary clarinet quintets and Hutter, a DePaul University professor, should consider expanding this affecting, well-crafted music into a larger multi-movement structure. Some passing errant string intonation apart, the Anaphora players conveyed the emotional richness of the work, particularly clarinetist Cory Tiffin and first violinist Heather Wittels.

The afternoon’s other world premiere was George Flynn’s American Howl Quartet. Inspired by Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s iconic 1957 poem, the work is scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, and combines a spoken recitation of Ginsberg’s stanzas over and alternating with the music.

Flynn, former head of DePaul’s composition department, did triple duty Sunday as pianist and reader — often simultaneously — as well as composer. One can imagine an actor or professionally trained speaker bringing more poise and timbral variety to the words, but in Flynn’s dry-voiced, unvarnished fashion, the composer’s intense narration made manifest his close identification with Ginsberg’s poem.

At 35 minutes, Flynn’s quartet was the largest work on the program and, like Howl itself, at times also felt a bit overlong and repetitive. Flynn’s music often echoes Ginsberg’s social protest and fantastical poetic flights with great skill. The quartet is cast in a jagged style with edgy, sharply rhythmic fragments for clarinet and strings set against a crashing, violently dissonant piano part, played with alarming intensity by the 64-year-old composer.

Yet while its’s clear that Howl evoked an inspired and often imaginative response from Flynn, the music is not always sufficiently varied or contrasted in its raw discords and violent oscillations over the long haul. The more restrained final section (“Carl Solomon, I’m with you in Rockland”) does offer some balm with its spare, hard-won solace at the coda. Flynn and his young colleagues (Tiffin, violinist Aurelien Pederzoli, and cellist Dan Klingler) gave this uncompromising music a fine debut, playing with full-metal advocacy.

Randall Snyder’s Chicago Profiles, premiered by Anaphora last year, is set in seven short vignettes, each evoking the work of a different Chicago writer. Despite its economical scoring for clarinet and trombone, Snyder conjures a variety of diverse sections. The jaunty, jazz-inflected opening movement reflects the sardonic tone of  Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make. A lowing muted trombone paints a distant foghorn inspired by Carl Sandburg’s poem, Fog. Short, sharply accented figures predominate in a section inspire by Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street.

Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is painted with wistful overlapping, lyrical lines. The fifth movement (from James T. Farrell’s A World I Never Made) is piquant and nostalgic while a section after Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Mucker is a rhythmic scherzo. The work concludes with a movement inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which effectively conveys the bittersweet introspection of this childhood remininscence. Trombonist Bryant Scott had a few rough moments Sunday but for the most part he and Tiffin provided admirable advocacy for Snyder’s resourceful suite.

The concert opened with Uptown by Marcos Balter. Scored for nine players (string quartet, flute, clarinet, harp, piano and vibraphone), the work was debuted by Anaphora in 2009.

Uptown doesn’t evoke much of the gritty milieu of the title Chicago neighborhood where it was being heard Sunday, but Balter’s music is unfailingly engaging, with a meditative flow set against astringent string lines and punctuated by piano and vibraphone chords.

Michael Lewanski directed a fine, acutely balanced performance that conveyed Balter’s luminous scoring and the atmosphere of spare, somewhat unsettled concentration. Cory Tiffin’s understated virtuosity was the fulcrum of the performance — as it was all afternoon —  with comparably polished playing by all, especially vibraphonist Christopher Jones and harpist Janelle Lake.

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