Contempo program serves up a bracing array of European music

Tue Mar 01, 2016 at 11:48 am

By Wynne Delacoma

The Pacifica Quartet performed at the University of Chicago’s Contempo program Monday night at the Logan Center.

After launching their season in October with a tribute to departing artistic director, composer Shulamit Ran, Contempo plunged into music by European composers Monday night at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center.

The university’s crack resident ensembles, eighth blackbird and Pacifica Quartet, were onstage along with guest artists from Poland: the fearsomely gifted vocalist Agata Zubel and double bassist Tadeusz Wielecki, director of the prestigious Warsaw Autumn Festival. The result was a bracing sample of contemporary music, pieces by five composers who share a striking ability to create an indelible sonic atmosphere.

After 18 years at the Hyde Park campus, the Pacifica Quartet is leaving the university, and Monday’s concert was their last appearance as Contempo’s resident performing artists. So it was appropriate that they provided the concert’s bookends, opening with Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 2, a work from 1980, and closing with Mosaics, a 2012 work dedicated to them by Marta Ptaszynska, University of Chicago professor and Contempo’s new artistic director. The Pacifica doubtless will return to Chicago in future years, but Monday’s concert reminded us how lucky we’ve been to have them so embedded in Chicago’s musical life.

Both the Schnittke and Ptaszynska’s Mosaics carried weighty emotional heft. A sense of grief and loss permeated all four movements of Schnittke’s quartet, immediately evident in the eerie, quiet whistling of the high strings in the first bars as well as the viola’s fierce assault on the quartet’s quasi-folk tune melody in the second. Violist Masumi Per Rostad’s slashing attack left the tune in jagged bits and pieces. The remaining players hovered, periodically blending their voices into solemn, organ-like chords as if to restore the melody’s lost dignity.

Ptaszynska had Beethoven’s monumental Grosse Fuge in mind while composing Mosaics, so Beethoven’s insatiable energy drives the piece. Opening with strong, commanding strokes, the Pacifica alternately swarmed like angry locusts or galloped proudly though Ptaszynska’s urgent rhythms. First violinist Simin Ganatra was an eloquent presence through the evening, but as her violin pulled away from the ensemble for brief solos in Mosaics, its high, powerful voice was especially arresting. 

As was Agata Zubel as soloist in Christophe Bertrand’s Madrigal, composed in 2004-5, and her own composition, Not I, from 2012. Performing with eighth blackbird in Madrigal, Zubel dispatched Bertrand’s three-part French text—drawn from the contemporary authors Italo Calvino and Roland Barthes and the 16th century Rabelais—with breathless authority. At times her vocal line pulsed like a litany, a mesmerizing succession of rapid-fire, repeated notes ending in a jagged leap. Though the music—spiced by eighth blackbird’s twittering winds and glittering percussion—was spiky and unpredictable, Zubel’s rich, seductive voice never turned shrill or harsh. 

Not I, much more speech than song, was another matter. Zubel growled, shrieked and crooned her way through excerpts from the text of Samuel Beckett’s monologue Not I. She was every bit the manic heroine of Beckett’s imagination. We saw her as deranged soul raging her way through a cacophonous urban landscape. Underscored by an equally intense eighth blackbird, it was a virtuoso performance and much of the audience cheered both soloist and ensemble. This listener, however, longed to escape Zubel’s crazed voice long before the piece was over.   

The atmosphere was entirely different in Wielecki’s brief The Thread is Spinning…IV, for double bass, viola, and the assorted instruments of eighth blackbird. At times dreamy, full of birdlike flights from flute and clarinet, it had a relaxed energy, confident of where it was headed but in no special hurry to get there. Wielecki’s double bass was a dark, rhythmic presence beneath the bright microbursts and long swoops and falls of the other instruments– an untroubled oasis amid an evening of high musical drama.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Contempo program serves up a bracing array of European music”

  1. Posted May 13, 2016 at 12:31 pm by Marta Ptaszynska

    Thank you Wynne for such a wonderful review!!
    I enjoyed very much meeting you in my studio and our interesting talk. All the best,
    Marta Ptaszynska

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