Conductor makes free-wheeling debut with Chicago Composers Orchestra

Tue Oct 27, 2015 at 12:15 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Allen Tinkham conducted the Chicago Composers Orchestra Sunday night at Constellation.
Allen Tinkham conducted the Chicago Composers Orchestra Sunday night at Constellation.

For his debut as music director of the Chicago Composers Orchestra Sunday night at Constellation, Allen Tinkham created a program best described as free-wheeling. Literally.

During the first work, a selection from Yoko Ono’s book, Grapefruit, three young musicians on bicycles serenely pedaled around the theater’s stage area and lobby. They mingled easily with dozens of their colleagues who were scattered about the funky space, merrily sawing, tootling, banging and otherwise making a joyful improvisational noise. Published in 1964, Grapefruit is a piece of conceptual art that grew out of Ono’s friendship with composer John Cage. The ideas is that players will improvise musical responses to the book’s seemingly absurd advice and instructions.

Improvising isn’t easy for classically trained musicians. Rarely emphasized at music schools, it’s become something of a lost art. But the orchestra’s young players caught Ono’s spirit of light-hearted anarchy.  Unlike the rough cacophony of an orchestra tuning up, the playing somehow managed to sound harmonious. Snatches of sweet melody and catchy little rhythms emerged and faded. The 10-minute piece wasn’t so much an assault on the ears as a benign act of musical mischief.

Tinkham took the podium for two more formally organized orchestral pieces from Grapefruit: Building Piece for Orchestra and Pieces for Orchestra.

Both of them were elegantly shaded, with the music alternately gathering momentum and settling back into near-silence.  At times we clearly heard a musical instrument’s voice—a fluttering woodwind, a swoop of strings. But at other times we didn’t know where the sound was coming from. Was that rasp coming from a violin bow or a noisily ripped piece of paper? Was that ping a doorbell? Trying to sort out what we were hearing was invigorating.

Compared with Ono’s Grapefruit, Notes from the Underground, a richly scored1988 work by Anthony Davis, offered more familiar terrain. Davis has written several operas, including Amistad, a commission from Lyric Opera. He is a jazz pianist and composer as well, and Tinkham and the orchestra sounded entirely at home in the sultry, laid-back rhythms and jazzy melodic lines of Notes from the Underground 

After intermission, the Chicago Composers Orchestra teamed up with the Grant Wallace Band, a three-man ensemble whose style ranges from jazzy bluegrass to singer-songwriter pop with a dangerously wry edge. Members are Chris Fisher-Lochhead, viola; Ben Hjertmann, lead singer and mandolin, and Luke Gullickson, piano/guitar.

During some of their 13 selections, the orchestra was a mostly silent partner, offering only a rustle of strings here or a short melody from a solo saxophone there. But at times the orchestra swelled into Technicolor raptures, soaring and swirling like a Hollywood studio orchestra tearing through the score for a 1950s biblical epic. In its songs the Grant Wallace Band looks at life with a gimlet eye. Their slightly off-center harmonies and minor keys hinted that simple pleasure like biking to a bridge or watching plums fall into a box may not be as innocent as they seem. Amid such company, even sunny Hollywood Technicolor seemed faintly sinister.   

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