Ear Taxi continues with music of Cheung, Balter and Hearne

Fri Oct 07, 2016 at 7:30 pm

By Tyler Krause

David Bowlin performed Marcos Balter's Violin Concerto at the Ear Taxi Festival Thursday night at the Harris Theater.
David Bowlin performed Marcos Balter’s Violin Concerto at the Ear Taxi Festival Thursday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Warren Johnson

Ear Taxi Festival kicked off its second evening Thursday night at the Harris Theater in a program of distinctive variety. The performance featured music scored for an assortment of mixed ensembles, all of which gave dedicated readings.

The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) opened the program with the Chicago premiere of Anthony Cheung’s Assumed Roles (2016), scored for viola and 10-member ensemble. The work opens with a rapid figuration in the viola and then, as the title suggests, is passed to and from members in the ensemble, embellishing the phrase in various ways. In the denouement, the outbursts bordered on melodic material, but as the end drew near, the figuration died away motionless.

Marcos Balter’s Violin Concerto (2016) conforms more to the genre of concerti than one might think. Cast in three movements, the work contains structural characteristics of the standard repertoire: primary/secondary theme and contrasting sections. The character of the writing is often virtuosic, and the soloist, David Bowlin, was equal to the challenges presented. In particular, during the work’s second movement, Bowlin navigated the arpeggiated passagework with sublime finesse, casting a dreamlike spell atop the  swirling overtone-filled accompaniment. In the third movement, Bowlin whipped off the violent cadenza with complete command. The finale was a vivid display of technical bravura, but the two abrupt notes that followed Bowlin’s back-breaking cadenza proved an anticlimax,  failing to tie the last movement together at the coda.

Divertimento Concertante (2016), heard in its world premiere, was the second Balter piece, for which ICE teamed with The People’s Music School Youth Orchestra. From the get-go it was clear that Balter dialed back any technical demands of the score in order to accommodate a youth ensemble. The first movement was underwhelming given the sheer number of performers on stage; most of the orchestra, excepting principal strings, played only a few measures throughout the entire work.  Still, conductor Ben Bolter was all business as he wove together Balter’s imaginative soundscape, cuing the young musicians at every entrance. The members of ICE were as intriguing to watch as they were to listen to.  Moving from side to side during the second movement’s rhythmic ostinato, they became one with the music.  As mentioned in his note, Balter sought to create a union between ICE and the youth ensemble, and, in that goal, the music was successful. 

The expansion of empty space and reverberation make up Hans Thomalla’s Wonderblock (2013), performed Thursday evening by Northwestern University’s Contemporary Music Ensemble. Set for eight musicians, the work takes its title from Sigmund Freud’s “Note on the Mystic Writing Pad” and uses resonance as means to connect external impressions with the memory apparatus. Like the description of the work, the ways in which the individuals toy with resonance is cerebral.

Notable contributions include Andrew Lennox on trumpet. When Lennox’s bell was not covered by a baseball cap, it was directed into the labyrinth of the piano, projecting off the instrument’s soundboard.  In addition, percussionists Nick Sakakeeny and Michael Hopkins tactfully managed separate vibraphones among an arsenal of other instruments.  Sometimes the vibraphones were struck with a mallet, sometimes with a 2×4, creating a vibrating cluster of notes.

The evening concluded with Northwestern’s Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble in Ted Hearne’s Consent (2012). Cast in a manageable seven minutes, the a cappella piece provides musical testimony on gender inequality and sexual assault. The text for Hearne’s work is drawn from many sources: letters of love, texts from the Catholic Rite of Marriage and the Jewish Ketubah, and messages exchanged between Trent Mays and Lucas Herrington in the Steubenville Rape Trial. 

Conductor Donald Nally brought this emotional miniature into undeniably sharp focus with a chilling performance. The opening line “I want you” sung by male members of the chorus in an indiscernible line of chant proved unforgettable. The music then escalated in dynamics, towering on the word “Consent!”, before it concluded in a quiet, ruminative fashion.

Ear Taxi Festival continues through Monday night. eartaxifestival.com

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