Contempo program serves up a wealth of brainy stylistic variety

Sun Jan 13, 2013 at 12:33 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Shulamit Ran’s “Under the Sun’s Gaze” was performed Saturday at the University of Chicago’s Contempo program at the Logan Center for the Arts.

“Lustrous” isn’t a term we typically associate with contemporary music. But the word, with its implications of both beauty and depth, is a fair description of the rich, inventive colors and musical textures on display at Contempo’s season-opening concert Saturday night at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts.

For its 48th season, Contempo—the latest incarnation of the contemporary chamber ensemble founded at the university by composer Ralph Shapey—is focusing on composers with some relation to the University of Chicago. Saturday’s concert brought five works by distinguished faculty in the school’s Department of Music: Marta Ptaszynska, Augusta Read Thomas and Shulamit Ran. Anthony Cheung, a pianist and composer who joins the faculty in the fall, performed his own Roundabouts for solo piano.

Mercifully, the days when a university’s music faculty composed in a single style, which their students were expected to imitate, are long gone. Certainly in terms of musical forces, the program was deftly varied, and passionately performed by two U of C resident groups, the Pacifica Quartet and eighth blackbird, plus a few additional guests. The pieces ranged from solos (Roundabouts and Ptaszynska’s Spider Walk for solo percussion) to larger pieces (Thomas’ Passion Prayers and Ran’s Under the Sun’s Gaze, Concerto da Camara III) expertly conducted by Cliff Colnot.

Each composer’s voice was distinctive, from Cheung’s inward-looking fascination with silence and luminous, isolated sound in Roundabouts to the ferocious, fight-to-the-death interplay between solo cello and six ensemble players in Thomas’ Passion Prayers.

There was a unifying thread, however, in all six works. Clearly, each composer was intensely interested in wrestling with musical complexity.  But none of the pieces was a dry, academic exercise in unraveling arcane knots. There was real beauty in the short, melodic ideas that kept recurring in several works. We felt a genuine sense of joy in Spider Walk, hanging on every outburst as percussionist Doug Perkins charged between assaultive drum tattoos and intriguing snippets of simple tunes from resonant gongs. Like the best kind of hip-hop artist, his unpredictable shifts were mesmerizing.

Thomas’ Scat, a short work from 2007 for flute, violin, viola, cello and piano, was equally unpredictable yet engaging. The conversation among the players ranged from angular and fierce to sly and zesty, all performed with a worldly-wise tinge appropriate for a piece named for jazzy scat singing.

The mood was darker in Ptaszynska’s Four Portraits for string quartet, performed with hair-trigger precision and rapt emotion by the Pacifica Quartet. Each movement highlighted a different player. Solo voices emerged and faded, full of longing as they pressed against quiet waves of raw, shuddering strings.

Nearly 20 minutes long, Ran’s Under the Sun’s Gaze was the program’s longest work and summed up the evening’s brainy delight in musical complexity. Written for nine string, wind and percussion players, its raucous outbursts evoked a merciless noonday sun while its more languorous moments hinted at a Middle Eastern desert cooling into twilight. Wandering onstage midway through the piece, Jeremy Ruthrauff turned his soprano sax solos into hypnotic siren songs.

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