ACM warms up a cold night with stimulating mix of new music

Wed Jan 22, 2014 at 2:48 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

ACM collaborated with singer-songwriter Jennifer Hall Tuesday night at Architectural Artifacts.
ACM collaborated with singer-songwriter Jennifer Hall Tuesday night at Architectural Artifacts.

Access Contemporary Music is one of Chicago’s most innovative and adventurous new music organizations. It’s no wonder, then, that an overflow audience braved yet another round of snow and near-zero temperatures on Tuesday night to hear ACM musicians perform at the industrial-chic Architectural Artifacts space on North Ravenswood Avenue.

Titled “Vanishing Point,’’ the concert focused on the far horizon where, according to ACM founder Seth Boustead, the normally parallel streams of pop and classical music increasingly intersect. As is typical of his programming, the repertoire and performers were a stimulating, eclectic mix.

One great pleasure of ACM concerts is the sense of venturing into the unknown; most of the music on Tuesday’s concert was either newly composed or newly arranged. But listeners also know that each piece will be played by gifted, passionately involved performers.

Three Pieces by Chicago composer William Jason Raynovich, a work originally written for soprano and cello, was re-imagined for jazz vocalist Christy Bennett accompanied by clarinet, cello and guitar.

I would have liked a printed text for the two e.e. cummings poems–“Into a Truly” and “World, Conceive a Man”—that were divided by an instrumental interlude. Bennett ‘s voice was sweet and supple, and her relaxed, soft-edged phrasing flowed with the relaxed confidence of a true jazz singer. At times, her words were difficult to understand, but Raynovich’s instrumental writing was intensely expressive. Christie Miller’s clear, dark clarinet and Alyson Berger’s mournful cello evoked an atmosphere of austere loneliness abetted by hushed interjections from Casey Nielsen’s guitar.

The program included Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals?, a 1994 piece with words and music by Errollyn Wallen whose five songs ranged from gospel-blues style to intricate modernism. Soprano Susan Nelson was backed by Palomar’s string quartet (Jeff Yang and Mark Agnor, violins; violist Ben Weber and Berger on cello).

With her clear, strong soprano, Nelson easily handled the shifts in mood. She romped merrily through the gospel-flavored “Beehive.” But she found a brooding depth in the unpredictable melodies that flowed seamlessly above the sometimes raw, urgent accompaniment in “End of My Days.”

Four composers affiliated with ACM wrote versions of four songs by the pop singer-song writer Beck.

Andy Costello, Brian Baxter, Michael Miller and Greg Steinke added inventive color to Beck’s catchy tunes and rhythms. Thanks to a microphone, Bennett’s voice sounded clear and expressive in the songs that combined folky simplicity with mordant shadows. Various combinations of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and electronic piano accompanied each piece. Hulya Alpakin’s relentless, galumphing piano added a comic but faintly chilling foundation to Costello’s arrangement of We All Wear Cloaks.

The evening closed with ACM’s Palomar ensemble joining forces with a local indy group, the Jennifer Hall Band. Palomar violinist Yang wrote tight, colorful arrangements of three Hall songs, which Hall performed backed by her own band plus Palomar’s string quartet and wind players. Their segment opened with Yang’s blistering instrumental arrangement of David Bowie’s Life on Mars that channeled Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

The collaboration between Palomar and the Jennifer Hall Band could have been a contrived bit of crossover drivel. But Yang is a fan of Hall’s music, and his arrangements were lean and understated. Rather than piling on lush layers, he added intriguing commentary to Hall’s highly personal, sometimes angry, songs. At one point in Would You Walk Away, Berger’s cello echoed and extended the vocal line, climbing and turning to heights that underscored Hall’s eloquent singing.

With its sweeping staircase and soaring brick walls punctuated by open window spaces, Architectural Artifacts’ atrium is a handsome venue, and its acoustics sounded surprisingly good, at least from the first few rows of seats. Miller’s assorted clarinets and Alicia Poot Kelly’s flute sounded especially juicy and resonant.

Posted in Performances

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