Ear Taxi wraps and MusicNOW opens with a diverting array of music

Tue Oct 11, 2016 at 2:21 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Cliff Colnot conducts the world premiere of Kyle Vegter's "Monday or Tuesday" with Manual Cinema Monday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Cliff Colnot conducts the world premiere of Kyle Vegter’s “Monday or Tuesday” with Manual Cinema Monday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The first MusicNOW program of the season also served as the final Ear Taxi event, and proved a nice way to wrap the festival, with a well-varied quartet of works Monday night at the Harris Theater.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra composers in residence Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek were the cordial hosts once again. The cumulative effect of Ear Taxi seemed to boost attendance for the CSO’s new-music series with Monday’s turnout by far the largest to date for a MusicNOW event in the Adams-Ogonek era.

Marc Mellits’ Splinter made an inviting curtain-raiser.  Written in 2014, this wind quintet is cast in the form of a non-baroque, baroque suite. The eight shortish titled movements are branches or leaves that form the overall musical “tree,” says Mellits.

Splinter may not plumb great depths but it is communicative and supremely well crafted wind music. There are passing moments of ruminative introspection in the lyric idylls of “Linden” and “River Birch.” But the predominant mode is one of buoyant and amiable bustle, with Mellits deftly varying the timbral combinations as well as providing spotlight moments for each player. One could hardly imagine a more lively and stylish performance than that served up by oboist Andrew Nogal, clarinetist Daniel Won, bass clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom, saxophonist Jeremy Ruthrauff and bassoonist William Buchman. 

Composer Sam Pluta said his Tile Mosaic (after Chagall) from 2010 marked a change in his style to a subtler, more allusive form. Scored economically for four-hand piano and two percussionists, Pluta’s music rarely rises above mezzo-forte but its shimmering delicacy and restless piano counterpoint succeed in suggesting something of Marc Chagall’s soft-hued iridescence. Percussionists Cynthia Yeh and Eric Millstein and pianists Winston Choi and Kuang-Hao Huang provided sensitive, acutely colored playing.

Two MusicNOW commissions were heard in their world premieres Monday, each based on a literary inspiration.

Katherine Young’s where the moss glows is part of a larger cycle, with source material provided from Kelly Link’s short story The Girl Detective. Musical inspiration also comes from a list Young requested from the evening’s performers of things they had lost, both trivial and important. Among these are cell phones, a wedding ring, gold chain, underwear, a complete CD collection, a loved one, a wallet, and a 2011 Honda CRV.

Scored for a mixed octet of strings and winds, with percussion and electronics, a mystery-like narrative thread surfaces at times with sounds of a creaky door and footsteps, amid the panoply of Young’s instrumental effects. The composer conveys a range of colors and unusual timbres amid the gimmicky moments–at one point the musicians stop playing and hold up small whirring electronic fans. Despite alert and well-balanced conducting by Cliff Colnot, Young’s work ultimately felt discursive and directionless, lacking cohesion and musical coherence.

In many ways, the final work of the evening, Kyle Vegter’s multidisciplinary Monday or Tuesday was the ideal piece with which to conclude the enterprising Ear Taxi Festival. Inspired by writings of Virginia Woolf, Vegter’s MusicNOW commission was performed by a quintet of musicians alongside projections and puppetry supplied by Manual Cinema.

In this sort of mixed-media genre, the visuals often overwhelm the music. But Vegter’s restless, lonely score for five players (clarinet, bass clarinet, cello, percussion and piano) effectively painted Woolf’s disturbed stream of consciousness. That sense of the writer’s psychological center not holding was beautifully evoked by the spare melancholy of Manual Cinema’s visuals projected on a large overhead screen: a paper bird, flowers being watered and dying, and, especially, graceful silhouettes of a Woolf-like woman writing at a desk and appearing both searching and disconsolate.

Colnot led the quintet in an inspired performance that showed how successful such musico-visual hybrids can be when all the components are created and executed on the highest level. Watching the quick-changing practical theatrical magic by Manual Cinema members was as fascinating a visual as the images they created.

The next MusicNow program will mark Steve Reich’s 80th birthday with a program of his music November 21. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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