Dal niente’s stars unevenly aligned at Constellation

Wed Oct 15, 2014 at 2:42 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Matthew Oliphant performed Dai Fujikura's "poyopoyo" at Dal Niente's concert Sunday at Constellation.
Matthew Oliphant performed Dai Fujikura’s “poyopoyo” at Dal Niente’s concert Sunday at Constellation.

Among Chicago’s plethora of envelope-pushing new-music ensembles, Dal Niente stands out for its commitment to new, often boldly experimental music. The group presented three works Sunday night at Constellation, and the spare, industrial-chic club on the northwest side offers an ideal venue for such events. The menu ranged from a duo by a 20th-century modernist to the world premiere of an audience participation item inspired by recent political events. If the results proved rather uneven, t’was ever thus for contemporary music programs.

Donald Martino’s Cinque frammenti (1961) led off. The thorny music of the American serialist (1931-75) is not easy to love, yet this duo for oboe and string bass skillfully explores the wide timbral disparities and contrasted expressive possibilities of the two instruments in five brief sections. In his high phrases, oboist Andrew Nogal found a searching quality within Martino’s rigorous style while bassist Douglas Johnson provided earthy and sonorous counterpoint.

Dai Fujikura’s music has been well represented in Chicago by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which, in fact, performed a program spotlighting his music just a couple hours earlier elsewhere in the city.

Matthew Oliphant was the solo protagonist in Fujikura’s poyopoyo for muted solo horn, heard Sunday in its U.S. premiere. The title means “soft and squidgey” explained Oliphant, like the cheek of a four-month-old baby.

Oliphant brought striking concentration and dynamic acuity to this music, with its vocal wa-wa sounds and hushed dynamic range. Yet ultimately, the glacial progress, pauses and reiterated notes suggested a musician slowly warming up more than a finished composition.

The largest work of the evening, in scoring (eight players and reader) and length, was Matthew Golombisky’s Gathering Tomorrow, which received its world premiere.

Golombisky’s work was inspired by the shooting of teenager Michael Brown by the police and the resulting events in Ferguson, Missouri. The composer states (as related by Oliphant) that the work is an outcry against “tax-supported racism” and “militaristic forces,” though the actual music sounds much less revolutionary than his political credo suggests.

In addition to the eight musicians, Golombisky’s score calls for a speaker (Kenn Kumpf) to read Bill McKay’s poem Winter Haven. Audience members were also given copies of the poem, as well as a series of complex cues to speak specific words of the poem at two different sections (unhelpfully, not numbered on the sheets) as well as to “shush” the musicians at the moments when their music represents malign forces, presumably of the Ferguson police.

There was some fine playing by the Dal niente musicians, yet, unsurprisingly, most of the audience participation didn’t come off—partly because the instructions were so bewildering but mainly because such extra-musical devices almost never work, leaving far too much that is essential to mere chance.

Still, while overly simplistic in concept, Golombisky’s work is well-intentioned and has some interesting moments but would likely find a stronger and more successful form with the aleatoric element jettisoned.

Dal niente will perform music of Chou Wen-Chung at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center 8 p.m. Saturday night. dalniente.com

Posted in Performances

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