Contempo opens new year with bracing variety from eighth blackbird

Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 1:25 pm

By Elliot Mandel

eighth blackbird performed at the Contempo program Tuesday night at the Logan Center.
eighth blackbird performed at the Contempo program Tuesday night at the Logan Center.

The 2014 Contempo series at the University of Chicago kicked off Tuesday at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.  Top new-music ensembles eighth blackbird and Anubis Quartet were joined by mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley and clarinetist Daniel Won in five works by some of today’s leading composers.  All were written between 2008 and 2013 and bound together by non-musical inspiration, whether by word, image, or story.

The title of Anna Weesner’s Lift High, Reckon – Fly Low, Come Close (2008), gives an indication of the duality presented in her music. There is a delicate wavering in the violin and cello, answered by more deliberate and jaunty music for the piano. A conversation between the two factions becomes dark and violent, with stabbing bursts in the strings, before returning to a reflective mood reminiscent of the opening. Violinist Yvonne Lam, cellist Nicholas Photinos, and pianist Lisa Kaplan – half of eighth blackbird – gave a tightly controlled performance that exposed the intricate textures of Weesner’s writing.

In his program notes, Brett Dean describes his Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) (2010) as “night music.” Speaking from the stage, eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro called these nocturnes “wild hallucinations and night terrors.”

The listener is plunged immediately into an abyss as a bottomless sound echoes from the bass drum. The soundscape shifts rapidly through the use of prepared instruments—including a paperclip attached to the violin bridge—and pairings of clarinet/flute and violin/cello supported by piano and percussion. The only peace comes briefly in the middle movement, though it is an uneasy calm after the room has stopped spinning. Eighth blackbird played with a precision that created a high-wire tension throughout the performance.

Along with Contempo’s artistic director, Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas’s music is familiar to Chicago audiences as both composers were close associates of Daniel Barenboim during his tenure at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Thomas composed her intimate Twilight Butterfly (2013) for voice and piano after considering the imagery of a hot, summer evening. Singing the text (also written by Thomas), mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley showed off her tremendous vocal and stylistic range, weaving melismatic vowels around singular tones ringing from the piano. The Logan acoustic allowed each note from Bentley and Kaplan to blend with each other and resonate.

John Orfe’s Leviathan (2008), for two clarinets and piano. takes its name from the biblical sea monster, though it could also refer to the effort required of the clarinetists and their reeds in this piece. Michael Maccaferri and Daniel Won made a formidable duo, winding their way through treacherous allegro passages, playing off each other in whiplash fashion.  At the piano, Kaplan gave a muscular accompaniment in this boisterous and unpredictable work.

The Anubis Quartet closed the concert with Lei Liang’s Yuan (2008) for saxophone quartet. Linked by the title Chinese symbol meaning injustice, lamentation, and prayer, the work takes inspiration from tragedies of the 14th and 20th Centuries. Using nearly every possible sonic capability of the instrument, Liang calls for pure, piercing sounds, audible breathing, and percussive tapping of the keys. Outbursts of melodic fragments blend with the suspense created by fluttering tones; bits of traditional Chinese melodies peek through the dreamy texture.

The unusual sounds produced by detached mouthpieces were perhaps meant to evoke mournful wailing, but elicited some snickering from the audience. The Anubis Quartet showed remarkable artistic depth and expert control as every sound rang with clarity and intent.

Pianist Lisa Kaplan brought a unifying presence to the concert, performing in all but the last work; her athletic playing and command of the repertoire was nothing short of astounding.

The next Contempo program features violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Ning Yu in music by Gubaidulina,  Haas, Chin, Davidovsky, Lee and Xenakis 3 p.m. March 2 at the Logan Center.

Elliot Mandel plays cello, attends lots of concerts, writes reviews, and take pictures. Twitter: @Cello_guy

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