Fulcrum Point parks the car in Harvard yard with mixed results

Fri Mar 30, 2012 at 10:47 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stephen Burns conducts Ken Ueno’s “Disjecta” in Fulcrum Point’s concert Wednesday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Paul Natkin

At its best, the Fulcrum Point New Music Project can serve up some of Chicago’s most varied and illuminating nights of contemporary works. The ensemble’s “Speaking in Tongues” program a year ago offered one of the finest modern-music lineups of recent seasons with three world premieres.

Wednesday night’s concert at the Harris Theater proved rather less consistent in its chosen repertoire. The program is the first in a projected three-year series, “Fulcrum Point Goes Ivy League,” featuring composers hailing from specific East Coast universities, with Harvard up first represented Wednesday by four works dating from 2000-2004.

Paul Moravec calls his Time Machine, “a dream-like tour of the development of clocks and clock-thought from the Renaissance to the present.” Scored for violin, cello, piano, flute, clarinet/bass clarinet and percussion, the work begins with metronomic sounds that segue into a restless uptempo section. The second movement “Pendulum,” offers a swaying, long-limbed theme that passes from cello to violin and clarinet. “A Clockwork Universe” reflects its Newtonian inspiration in wide, scalic passages that turn into an insistent, mechanistic energy that spins out of control. The malign Minimalist pulsing of the final section goes on a bit too long for its own good (we get it) but Moravec’s sextet is crafted with characteristic polish, flair and imagination and was given superb advocacy by the Fulcrum Point ensemble.

The other three works were all being heard in their Midwest premieres.

When you see a horn trio that requires a conductor, you know that the players or the audience are in for it, possibly both. Yet Ken Ueno’s Disjecta turned out to be the most compelling work of the evening.

The title comes from a collection of essays by Samuel Beckett. specifically an analysis of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which Ueno says greatly impacted his ideas about form in music. Disjecta is Ueno’s attempt to come to terms with his own musical development and “reinvestigate diverse elements of my personal compositional vocabulary.”

While it is scored for the same forces as Brahms’ Horn Trio (horn, violin, and piano), there the resemblance ends. Disjecta is more abstract, interested in utilizing the instruments in nontraditional ways and exploring wide extremes of timbral and dynamic contrasts in “four tectonic regions.”

Disjecta opens (“Heavy and Industrial”) with a growling chromatic piano figure that builds in volume and intensity yielding to a thread of extremely high violin tone. The second section (“Stillness”) paints a post-apocalyptic landscape with the horn player making wind sounds by blowing through his mouthpiece and the violinist playing the tailpiece of her instrument. There is a spare hypnotic quality in this music, yet the desolate fragments slowly expand, and the music becomes more tonal, urgent and expressive. The horn is finally allowed to voice its full rich tone in a rising lyrical melody and cadenza that could have descended from Richard Strauss.

Horn player Gregory Flint was challenged at times by the more stratospheric passages, but otherwise he, violinist Rika Seko and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang brought great versatility and concentration to this extremely demanding score under Stephen Burns’ alert direction.

The works by Randall Woolf and Peter Lieberson proved less rewarding.

Lieberson, who passed away last year, became deservedly acclaimed for his Neruda Songs, the most beautiful song cycle since Strauss.

Any puzzlement as to why it’s taken a decade for Lieberson’s Piano Quintet to make its Chicago debut became quickly apparent. This work is decidedly thin in inspiration and not very interesting in its working out of its slight ideas. There are some uncharacteristic moments of folk fiddling in its three brief movements yet the one attractive theme in the middle movement is quickly dropped without being explored. The performance didn’t help, sounding edgy with wiry violin intonation.

Randall Woolf’s Everything is Green is an odd hybrid. The taped narrator reads the brief title story by David Foster Wallace, to an accompaniment of sentimental music for flute and piano.

The narration is in the foreground—at least it was in Wednesday’s mix—and the two live musicians take a distinctly supporting role. Flutist Kathryn Flum and pianist Huang played the homespun melodies with the right light touch and the nostalgic music reflected the pensive melancholy of the story, which tells of the breakup of a relationship (read with plaintive simplicity by Rinde Eckert). But musically Everything is Green is pretty slender stuff, with the music and sound effects like light rain serving more as an evocative sonic backdrop for the tale’s narration.

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