CCM’s Kernis program explores shifting colors with dramatic intensity

Thu Apr 12, 2012 at 10:26 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Aaron Jay Kernis was the subject of Chicago Chamber Musicians’ Composers Perspectives program Wednesday night at Ganz Hall.

In theory, every piece of music offers a hint of a composer’s soul. Happily, the Chicago Chamber Musicians’ innovative Composers Perspectives project offers something more expansive. Every year the ensemble asks a composer—or two or three–to curate an evening-long concert. The idea is to give listeners a more sustained look at one composer’s work and his or her view of the larger musical scene.

Aaron Jay Kernis, a Composers Perspectives guest in 2004, was back for a second visit with CCM Wednesday night in Ganz Hall. This time around his program included two of his own pieces, Two Movements (with Bells) from 2007 and Trio in Red from 2001. The concert also featured The Moon of Falling Leaves (Arboreal Night Music I), written in 2008 by Michael Gatonska, and Graffiti dell’amante. A four-part piece for string quartet and vocalist, Graffiti was composed in 2010 by Lisa Bielawa, who also sang the vocal part.

In remarks before the concert, Kernis described the evening’s “connecting thread” as a blend of strong lyricism and dramatic intensity. Now in his mid-50s, one of his generation’s most distinguished composers, Kernis also has a love of vivid musical color. This combination of singing line, emotional drama and shifting hues is the kind of music CCM’s stellar members were born to play. From the elegiac moods of Kernis’ Two Movements and Gatonska’s Moon of Falling Leaves to the raw rage of Bielawa’s Graffiti, the concert was a rewarding exploration of unfamiliar music.

Violinist Jasmine Lin and pianist Kay Kim set the bar high with an impassioned performance of Two Movements (with Bells) to open the concert. In the first movement, Lin’s violin spun out strong, firmly sculpted lines against Kim’s dappled, wandering piano. At times Kim’s high, tinkling piano chords and the icy whistle of Lin’s sustained top notes evoked the sound of distant, dreamy bells.

The interplay of timbres was also strong in Gatonska’s Moon of Falling Leaves. Clancy Newman’s cello and Wagner Campos’ clarinet and bass clarinet were smoky yet powerful voices against the brighter tone of Joseph Genualdi’s violin and Rami Solomonow’s viola.  Along with pianist Kay Kim, each musician took an ardent turn in the solo spotlight, expertly exploring moods that shifted from
serene to headstrong.

Lisa Bielawa. Photo: Liz Linder

Using texts that ranged from a sonnet by Michelangelo to contemporary poetry, Bielawa’s Graffiti bristled with often-brutal drama. Asking the audience to vote on the order in which poems should be performed, she easily assumed multiple personalities. In purposely dry, almost tuneless vocal lines, she morphed from Cleopatra raging about a noisy bird in one poem into an utterly bereft, anonymous lover in another. The string quartet of Lin, Genualdi, Solomonow and Newman surrounded her with sometimes austere, sometimes jaggedly surging accompaniment.

Kernis’s stormy Trio in Red, performed by clarinetist Igor Begelman, Newman and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu brought the evening to a rousing close.

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