Dal Niente season finale makes for a revelatory evening

Sun Jun 10, 2012 at 8:32 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Ensemble Dal Niente wrapped its season with a concert Saturday night in Evanston

Esplorazioni (“Explorations”) is a title that can apply to any Ensemble Dal Niente event but, it proved particularly appropriate for the season finale Saturday night at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston

The centerpiece of this ambitious program featured a world premiere bookended by Esplorazione del bianco and Esplorazione del bianco II (both from 1986) by Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino with five minute palate-cleansing pauses between the pieces.

Esplorazione del bianco (“Exploration of Light”) is for solo contrabass but were it not for the presence of the instrument itself, it would be hard to audibly recognize this as music for bass by sonority alone. Not only is the bass used as a melodic instrument — itself a rarity — but via extended techniques and overtones, the player broadens the upper range of the instrument into uncharted territory.

At times, the bass is made to sound like a muted French horn or screech trumpet but with a wider timbre that can become fascinatingly indistinct — at times even suggesting the subtle singing of the humpback whale. The instrument is bowed throughout and creates an exploration of sustained yet constantly morphing sonorities except for a few low staccato notes at the finale.

Despite the emphasis on exploring texture and timbre, the piece is actually quite melodic and lyrical, often suggesting slow chromatic jazz lines. Kudos to Mark Buchner for his virtuosic yet dynamically nuanced performance.

Esplorazione del bianco II is for flute, bass clarinet, guitar and violin, but here again, there are few moments of the piece where any of the instruments are played in a conventional manner. The overtones of the violin and the guitar are taken upward into the stratosphere while the multiphonics of the flute and bass clarinet are taken downward, but here the emphasis was more on sonority for its own sake, though performed with remarkable subtlety.

The ambitious world premiere was Without Words by Aaron Einbond. The New York-based composer controlled the soundboard and computer to render prerecorded sections of the piece as well as allow for real time searches of pre-loaded field samples as electronic reactions to portions of the live performance. Conductor Michael Lewanski sported headphones to coordinate the prerecorded sections and live transformations.

The work began and ended with the chirping of crickets.  The eleven-piece ensemble and soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett proceeded to emphasize the interplay of instruments and white noise as Bartlett whispered in real time alongside recordings of her doing the same —sometimes aided by retrained kazoo and a rustling plastic bag, sometimes churning out whispered syllables that were actual bits of verse but so abstractly rendered as to be rarely discernible.

Meanwhile, the pianist would lightly strike the strings of the piano, and the bassist played a detuned string so loose you could see and well as hear vibrations. Winds, including baritone saxophone, bass clarinet and alto flute punctuated the proceedings with dashes of flutters and elephant screams. At one point a performer mysteriously held up a chance card to the conductor as an indication of what direction the piece would take.

It was certainly an engaging piece of performance art a la John Cage but proved so jagged and vacuous that sixteen minutes of this seemed a long time for what essentially came off as aleatoric confetti.

Far more engaging was the piece that opened the program, written for similar forces and said to have in part inspired Einbond — Greek-born French composer Georges Aperghis’ La Nuit en Tête (“Night in the Head”). Written in 2000, the work uses traditional instruments in remarkably innovative combinations exploring new timbral possibilities and spotlighting microtones clustered around a pedal point though muted textures.

Closing the evening was British composer Julian Anderson’s Khorovod for fifteen players. The score called for brass and extended percussion added to the strings and winds for a raucous finale, in which a number of the performers sported yellow pants.

The fun, rompish piece makes use of an almost Ivesian bit of simultaneously distinct melodic bits, in this case made up of Eastern European folk tunes.  Combined together the contrasted elements form a distinctive din that is allowed to flower in dynamic and rhythmic intensity before pulling back to sustained, tranquilly rendered chromatic clusters resolved by a percussive ping.

Ensemble Dal Niente will perform music of Donatoni, Romitelli and Deerhoof/Balter as the opening act for indie rock band Deerhoof 6 p.m. June 14 at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion. dalniente.com

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