UC serves up an engaging tribute to Ralph Shapey

Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 11:28 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Ralph Shapey

From the mid-1960s until his death in 2002 at age 81, composer and conductor Ralph Shapey was a fiercely vital figure on Chicago’s musical scene. Based at the University of Chicago, he fought the good fight for contemporary music—his own and that of other composers he considered worthy. A composer of international stature, he could be combative, and his own music was often gnarly and difficult to grasp on first hearing.

But on Friday at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center, the New York-based ensemble Nunc presented a Shapey tribute concert that was immediately engaging. In four of his chamber pieces, violinist Miranda Cuckson and her gifted colleagues took us far beyond the stereotype of a prickly composer defying the audience to understand what he is saying.

This was intensely emotional music, its dissonances and unexpected rhythms conveying wit and longing, high drama and giddy good cheer. Never did we sense a composer simply showing off, piling on jarring effects for abstruse intellectual reasons. Even in his most challenging, large-scale works, Shapey always wanted to connect with his audience.

Nunc performed three late Shapey works: String Quartet No. 10 (Quartet d’Amore) from 2001, and 2 for 5 (Concerto Grosso) for clarinet and string quartet and the Piano Quintet, both from 2002. Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen also performed a much earlier work, Five for violin and piano from 1960. Distinguished clarinetist Charles Neidich, a long-time friend of Shapey’s, joined Nunc for 2 for 5, which the composer dedicated to him and the Juilliard String Quartet.

The concert opened with 2 for 5, a two-movement work full of luminous detail. Neidich’s cleanly etched yet warm clarinet served as a kind of pied piper. His slow, rapt phrases were mesmerizing and seemed to lure the string players into spinning a transparent, intricate web around his more hefty musical line. Cuckson’s gleaming violin often floated like gossamer above the voices of violinist Cyrus Beroukhim and violist David Fulmer. Chris Gross’s cello provided a ruminative home base for the four, more high-flying instruments.

Cuckson and McMillen seemed to enjoy themselves immensely in Five, an often merry set of five short movements for violin and piano.  At various times, he happily pounded away with chord clusters that verged on boogie-woogie, and she tossed off short skittering phrases and hearty pizzicatos.

Both the String Quartet No. 10 and the Piano Quintet showcased Nunc’s ability to etch crystal-clear, individual instrumental lines but also blend them into a single, expressive voice. In the slow movement of the Piano Quintet, the strings hovered and meandered against the piano’s deliberate, firmly incised phrases. We had a sense of vast space, dark yet somehow serene.

In the three-movement String Quartet, Shapey played with rhythms, creating angular, jumpy sections that melted seamlessly into longer, more unhurried passages. Despite the constant shifts, the music unfolded in a continuous flow. Both composer and performers knew exactly where they were heading. In such confident hands, we were more than happy to come along for the ride.

Contempo–the successor to the Contemporary Chamber Players, which Shapey founded in 1964–presented Friday’s concert as part of its 48th season. This year Contempo is focusing on musicians connected with the U of C. With its handsome program book and fascinating lobby display, the Shapey tribute concert was a fitting celebration of one of the university’s most distinguished figures.

Posted in Performances

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