Ogonek’s elegant music rises above the din at MusicNOW

Tue Mar 08, 2016 at 1:53 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Elizabeth Ogonek's "Falling Up" was performed at Monday night's MusicNOW concert at the Harris Theater.
Elizabeth Ogonek’s “Falling Up” was performed at Monday night’s MusicNOW concert at the Harris Theater.

Well, at least the turntable is gone.

The second MusicNOW program curated by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new composers in residence, Sam Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek, took place Monday night at the Harris Theater.

While new-music events tend to be mixed affairs by their very nature, Monday’s lineup offered more lows than highs with just one work rising above old new-music cliches.

That work was Ogonek’s Falling Up, which was written last year and heard in its U.S. premiere. The only non-vocal work on the program was, ironically, inspired by when-worlds-collide poetry of both Arthur Rimbaud and Shel Silverstein.

Scored for quintet (violin, cello, flute, clarinet and English horn) Ogonek’s music paints Rimbaud’s words in poised music of Gallic pastoral elegance–pensive yet oddly soothing, which fit Rimbaud’s sensitive melancholy perfectly. More gently whimsical passages provided contrast for Silverstein’s humorous lines. The relevant stanzas were projected on the screen during the performance but Ogonek’s music spoke eloquently on its own.

The same couldn’t be said of the two works written by vocalist-composers. Kate Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say, performed by the composer and flutist Erin Lesser, uses a Lydia Davis text about a breakup as a template for Soper’s virtuosic vocal style. Codirector of New York’s Wet Ink ensemble, Soper possesses a remarkable voice–fluid, strong and bracingly clear over a wide range. But I found her vocal gymnastics, crazed recitation, widely contrasted dynamics and epiglottal percussion to be empty, gestural and dated, a kind of Meredith Monk Lite.

Agata Zubel’s Labyrinth fared somewhat better only because the Polish composer’s jumpy, syncopated music for backing chamber ensemble was more interesting. But Zubel’s vocal performance of a poem by her compatriot Wislawa Szymborska was just as pretentious with her shouting, whispering (through a bullhorn at times) scat singing, etc. And why have two such similarly conceived works on the same program?

The evening closed with music of the other Wet Ink codirector, Eric Wubbels. Scored for sextet with electronics, Wubbel’s katachi succeeds in producing some striking timbres and combinations of sounds, fusing offbeat electronic methods with the live players.

Yet katachi felt ultimately meandering and aimless, sequences of varied noisy tumult without anything distinctive or particularly interesting in the material or the composer’s handling of it. Conductor Cliff Colnot lent a firm hand to the proceedings, as much as the music allowed.

Posted in Performances

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