UC composers shine in rewarding Contempo program

Fri Apr 24, 2015 at 11:12 am

By Tim Sawyier

Yuan-Chen Li's "Wandering Viewpoint" was heard in its world premiere at the Contempo program Wednesday night at the Logan Center.
Yuan-Chen Li’s “Wandering Viewpoint” was heard in its world premiere at the Contempo program Thursday night at the Logan Center.

Thursday evening Contempo presented a “UChicago Resident Ensembles Showcase” at the Logan Center for the Arts. The program was comprised of a world premiere from a current doctoral candidate and four pieces by University of Chicago composition doctoral graduates selected by resident ensembles eighth blackbird and the Pacifica Quartet.

Opening the evening was Erik Brinkman’s Sublimation for bass clarinet and string quartet. Beginning with droning open intervals in the second violin and viola, tension builds as the other instruments enter at dissonant intervals and harmonic density grows. The highlight of the work came after a protracted buildup of this pressure culminated in a wailing bass clarinet solo from eighth blackbird’s Michael J. Maccaferri, whose consummate command of pitch and dynamics in all registers of that unwieldy instrument was stunning. After his virtuosic outburst, the work came to a quiet, otherworldly close with Pacifica violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson dovetailing in rising and falling glissandi.

The performance continued with a quartet for flute, cello, percussion, and piano, entitled Nealíka, by Francisco Castillo Trigueros. A compact study in contrast, the four-movement work takes its name from the word for visual art of the native Mexican Huichol people. The first movement began with flutist Tim Munro playing a thin whistle on the piccolo along with cellist Nicholas Photinos skittering in the upper reaches of his instrument, punctuated by slams from the dynamic pianist Lisa Kaplan and percussionist Doug Perkins. Natural sounds from wooden percussion instruments pervaded the second and third movements, in which Munro gave a clinic in extended flute techniques—percussive pitched finger slaps, “jet whistling,” flutter tonguing, etc. The work’s ending was particularly effective as a series of caesuras between anxious gestures created the feeling of hall lights going on and off during the closing scene of a modernist play.

The “abstract mini opera” Twelve Faces of the Emerald by Michael LaCroix concluded the first half. The talented mezzo Julia Bentley joined eighth blackbird for LaCroix’s setting of Dan Pagis’ poem, and she imbued the disjointed ramblings of the self-involved title gem with ample bizarreness. From nervous humming, to literally hissing syllables, to highly affected Sprechtstimme and menacing speed whispers, Bentley dramatically brought the “role” of the emerald to life.

Speaking in Tongues, a quartet for string trio and waterphone by David M. Gordon not only required a rarely heard percussion instrument, but page-turners for Bernhardsson and cellist Brandon Vamos. Amply employing quartertones (the string players had a complement of strings tuned a quarter tone up or down), the work’s sonic vocabulary did indeed sound at first like harmonic babbling. However, as one’s ears grew accustomed to the microtonal language over the course of the 15-minute piece, the nontraditional harmonies developed a unique sheen. The strings complemented the diverse timbres emanating from the waterphone, which ranged from somber pulsating to high celestial tones to gamelan sonorities.

The world premiere of doctoral candidate Yuan-Chen Li’s Wandering Viewpoint brought the evening to a close, in a performance led by Contempo conductor Cliff Colnot. Written for solo cello and chamber ensemble (which is divided spatially and musically into two quintets) the work was an effective concertante showcase for Photinos. Li’s compositional voice is original and somewhat difficult to describe; texturally the work possesses an Impressionist  surface but its spirit was richly imbued with distinctly 21st-century dissonance, aggression, and volatility. Photinos’ virtuoso cello playing was scintillating and the dialogues in which Li had the two supporting ensembles interact with him and each other were particularly engaging. Li should take her degree with pride.

Contempo’s final concerts this season, “Tomorrow’s Music Today I & II,” take place at 7:30 p.m. May 6 and 15 at the Logan Center, featuring new works by young composers including dissertation compositions by current UChicago doctoral candidates. https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/contempo/schedule/


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