Contempo marks 50 years with a variety of new music

Mon Jan 26, 2015 at 7:41 am

By Gerald Fisher

COnjtenmp marked its 50th anniversay Saturday night. (The Pacifica Quartet, eighth blackbird and conductor Cliff Colnot).Photo: Jason Smith
Contempo marked its 50th anniversay Saturday night. (Pictured are the Pacifica Quartet, eighth blackbird and conductor Cliff Colnot). Photo: Jason Smith

Through fifty years of good times and lean the University of Chicago’s new music collective Contempo has faithfully presented challenging programs and fostered the careers of impressive composers and performers. Saturday night at the Logan Center for the Arts the ensemble celebrated their achievements in the first of two programs, “Contempo at 50: Now and Then,” which included three world premieres.

[Ed Note: News was released Friday that composer and UC professor Marta Ptaszynska will succeed Shulamit Ran as artistic director of Contempo in June. Ran will retire from the University of Chicago after more than 40 years of service and 12 years leading Contempo.]

The six-member eighth blackbird, Contempo’s ensemble-in-residence, presented the world premiere of Wave, written for them by Lee Hyla, whose untimely death last year deprived Contempo of a fertile collaborator and friend.

Hyla’s work is an eclectic mix of modernisms including jazz riffs and emphatic classical instrumentation, which ebbs and flows with percussive clamor interwoven by string solos and flute flutterings. It all adds up to a broad yet sensitive piece perfectly suited to the group.

Shulamit Ran, Contempo’s artistic director, contributed Perfect Storm, a ten-minute work for solo viola, which proved a veritable showpiece for the instrument and a worthy addition to its limited repertoire. This episodic piece covers the whole range of the viola’s capabilities and is by turns stark, exotic, dramatic, folkish and humorous. It requires amazing virtuosity, and Masumi Per Rostad, violist of the Pacifica Quartet, was more than equal to the occasion.

Ralph Shapey founded Contempo—then the  Contemporary Chamber Players—at U of C in 1964 and was its visionary leader for decades. He was represented by a work from 1984, Concertante No. 1 for trumpet and ten instruments. The performance featured Stephen Burns as soloist, best known to Chicagoans as the artistic director of Fulcrum Point New Music Project. He was accompanied by a group of peers on winds, brass and strings, in an aggressive and big-boned ensemble piece which swept by quickly and ended on a gentle note featuring trumpet and vibraphone.

Another world premiere was represented by the second half of a work, then, by the youthful Seattle-based Huck Hodge.  The first half of the piece , like glass (2003) pitted high violin scraping against piano arpeggios, while the new section, agitated, rough started on a monotone and and worked its way by octaves to  a dramatic ending. The short but intense and dramatic work was performed by Contempo’s other ensemble-in-residence, the Pacifica Quartet accompanied by the sensitive pianism of Anthony Cheung.

The third world premiere of the evening was The End of It, by the prolific U of C- based composer John Eaton, known for his work in microtonality and electronics. His considerable experience in opera would seem to be the most relevant to this new work, settings of meditations on death by poets including John Donne, Dante, and Karen Swenson.

The settings were vocally extreme and emotive with instrumental coloring around some words. The soloist, Sharon Harms, was adept at this style and was dramatically involved in the text. Her performance was impressive as she slipped into and out of characterizations with the quicksilver speed of the music itself. Conductor David Fulmer kept control of the ensemble in a difficult work, which might not be to everyone’s taste, but was compelling and worth the considerable effort required from musician and audience.

“Contempo at 50: Now and Then” Part 2 will be performed at Logan Center on March 1 at 3 p.m. Composers include: Grime, Sandroff, Schuller, Kim and Gubaidulina.

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