Contempo serves up bracing Argentinian double bill of opera, tango and jazz

Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 12:46 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley performed the title role in Jorge Liderman’s “Antigona Furiosa” at Saturday night’s Contempo program at the Logan Arts Center.

Contempo came up with a deft pairing of works for its 9th annual Jazz Double Bill concert Saturday night at the University of Chicago’s Logan Arts Center. Scheduled for a repeat Sunday afternoon, the program opened with Antigona Furiosa-–an intensely dramatic 1991 chamber opera by Argentine-born composer Jorge Liderman—and closed with the exuberant Pablo Aslan Quintet channeling some of Astor Piazzolla’s more experimental, jazz-flavored tangos.

Setting jazz and contemporary pieces side by side can be an awkward exercise, a feeble attempt by two relatively marginalized art forms to gain some heft by joining forces. But Contempo’s program meshed well for reasons beyond simply linking two composers from the same country. Both halves of the evening explored what happens when artists reinterpret earlier work.

Liderman, who earned his advanced degrees at the University of Chicago and died in 2008 at age 50, based his opera on a play by contemporary Argentine writer Griselda Gambaro. Written in 1986, her play looks at Sophocles’ ancient tale through the lens of Argentina’s brutal military rule of the 1980s. The Aslan Quintet turned the spotlight on Piazzolla’s mostly unsatisfactory attempt to fuse jazz and tango in a 1959 album titled Take Me Dancing.

Liderman’s music for Antigona Furiosa–45 minutes long and scored for three singers, three pianos and a stageful of percussion–is beguiling. On Saturday night it emerged as a potent sonic flow that shifted effortlessly between fierce, rattling outbursts and lyrical flights. We sensed a relentless inner logic despite the score’s utterly unpredictable, often dissonant twists and turns. The atmosphere was mysterious, evoking a world in which the ground was constantly shifting.

In typical Contempo fashion, the concert conducted by Cliff Colnot featured some of Chicago’s finest musicians. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley sang the title role, and the ensemble included pianists Adam Marks, Winston Choi and Lisa Kaplan with Douglas Perkins, Robert Dillon and David Skidmore presiding over the percussion battery that included racks of hanging chimes. Using minimal props–a sleek white couch, some modernistic floor lamps and stools–stage director Alexander Gelman and scenic director Terrence McClellan set the action in a hip, urban café.

The only problem was the very confusing story line. Gambaro didn’t want to simply update Sophocles’ play. She aimed for a broader statement about the disorienting effect of military dictatorship on a country’s daily life. Two ordinary men in business suits—Corifeo (baritone Ricardo Rivera) and Antinoo (tenor Benjamin Robinson)—watch Antigona closely. Sometimes they narrate her story, sometimes they comment on her plight. At various points, Corifeo takes the role of Creon, the king who condemns Antigone to death for demanding a proper burial for brother, his political opponent.

Without the program notes, it was impossible to figure out who the two men hovering around Antigona actually were. It was difficult to get swept up in Liderman’s seductive score while trying to sort out who was who onstage.

The performers more than made up for the confusing plot. Unleashing her rich, dark-tinged mezzo to its fullest, Bentley turned Antigona’s unpredictable leaps and turns into a seamless river of sound. As Creon, Rivera easily matched her fury while Robinson often provided a warmer, more human presence. The pianists tore through Liderman’s prickly arpeggios and long, meandering melodies with an impeccable blend of fearsome technique and expressive depth.

The Aslan Quintet’s cheery tango syncopations were more than welcome after the intensity of Antigona Furiosa. Piazzolla’s mix of late 1950’s jazz and traditional Argentine tango was clumsy at times. We felt the strain of a composer still trying to find his own voice. But Aslan, who played an assertive double bass, and his virtuoso colleagues–trumpet Diego Urcola, bandoneon Marcelo Nisinman, pianist Emilio Solla and drummer Brian Adler—found both zest and melancholy in the music.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday.

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