MusicNOW wraps up season with plugged-in finale

Tue Jun 07, 2016 at 2:19 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

CSO composers in residence Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek hosted the MusicNOW program Monday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
CSO composers in residence Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek hosted the MusicNOW program Monday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In recent years a turntable manned by a composer-DJ became a regular part of MusicNOW culture, with the previous CSO composers-in-residence team leaning toward a preference for electronic music.

There was no turntable on stage Monday night but there was a bestiary of electronica. After a largely acoustic debut season for composers Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek, the duo hosts closed the CSO’s new music series with a plugged-in program at the Harris Theater.

First up was Qasim Naqvi’s Fjoloy, heard in its U.S. premiere. The work for a cappella chorus was created for a visual art installation in Norway. Naqvi eschews traditional notation in favor of a graphic system. Further, each member of the 25-voice chorus is given an MP3 player with a specific synthesizer tone. The singers listen to their tones on headphones and their live singing is directed by a conductor whose gestures and interaction with the choir are scrupulously detailed.

The reliance on techno-zeitgeist gizmos made one steel oneself for yet another work in which musical quality takes a backseat to an elaborate setup. In fact, Naqvi’s Fjoloy is an extraordinary, strikingly beautiful piece. From the hushed, barely audible opening moments, the music casts a haunting, hypnotic spell, with the interweaving of layered voices creating a moving polyphony suggestive of Palestrina and other Renaissance church composers. Donald Nally directed the young singers of Northwestern University’s Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble masterfully, eliciting a wide dynamic range and polished and expressive singing, all the more impressive for the unorthodox means.

Great attention was focused on the evening’s world premiere, Light Readings by Samuel Adams. Commissioned by MusicNOW, Monday’s performance marked the first appearance of Adams’ music in his CSO composer residency.

Scored for choir and chamber octet, the work centers on an unspecified sense of “collective loss,” said Adams in his introduction. The texts are drawn jointly from Friedrich Rückert poems mined by Mahler for his Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the deaths of children) and Hasah Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics, an 11th century treatise on light and visual perception. Adams shortens the texts (in English translations) to a few words and phrases.

One would like to be more positive for the first fruit of Adams’ Chicago residency but this was not an auspicious debut. Light Readings proceeds in a slow-moderate tempo, as the chorus solemnly intones phrases concentrating on images of sun, light and darkness. But the music lacks crucial variety and color (as well as quicker tempos) until the end.

The writing for an octet of low instruments (two alto flutes doubling on bass flutes, two bass clarinets, two string basses, percussion and piano) is similarly thick and monochrome with little scoring facility or distinction.  Nally balanced alertly and led the voices and ensemble solidly, but Adams’ plodding and repetitive music felt much longer than its half-hour length.

Tristan Perich’s music explores “the threshold between the abstract world of computation and the physical world around us,” the composer states. Some in the musical press have made extravagant claims for the electronic works of Perich, including my colleague George Grella at New York Classical Review.

Perich calls his Surface Image “a duet between a musician and code.” The work is scored for solo piano and 40 speakers, the miniature 1-bit electronics arrayed on either side of soloist Vicky Chow like miniature ears on small trees. 

Surface Image is, in essence, a grandly ambitious piano concerto with the orchestra replaced by a multiplicity of electronic voicings. The live music consists of long, Glassian piano riffs, the pulsing lines repeating and gradually varied by phrase lengths and shifting rhythms. Eventually, the electronics steal in, subtly backing the soloist at first and soon growing more assertive. 

The echt-minimalist piano writing is attractive and communicative, as played by the gifted Chow. And Perich does create some striking electronic effects, including a Bach-like chromatic organ passage and a swelling crescendo that suggests plugged-in Rachmaninoff. Later the electronics become more intrusively gnarly, prompting one to look over at the mixing board to see if the loud buzzing was intentional or some technical mishap.

Ultimately for all the binary-new-music hipness of the setup and presentation, there is a certain quality of kitsch about the music. One was reminded of the marketing slogan for those pioneering RCA Living Stereo LPs: “A Sonic Spectacular!” Take away the 40 speakers and the code cool and this is pretty slender stuff.

Finally, spanning over an unbroken hour of continuous music, Surface Image is numbingly overlong and wears out listener interest a good 20 minutes before it finally comes to an end.

All credit to pianist Chow who delivered a tour de force performance, combining poetic lyricism with steel-fingered stamina.

The 2016-17 MusicNOW series opens October 10 with works by Chicago composers. A program marking Steve Reich’s 80th birthday takes place on November 21, and the legacy of Pierre Boulez will be feted on April 3, 2017. The season closes May 22 with an evening of multimedia concertos.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “MusicNOW wraps up season with plugged-in finale”

  1. Posted Jun 08, 2016 at 10:03 am by Roland Buck

    As classical music struggles to escape from the dark age it was trapped in during the second half of the 20th century, there is a lot of floundering. These works are examples of this. To get some more interesting new music the CSO should bring in some composers from the Atlanta school.

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