Ear Taxi’s Saturday marathon serves up a wide stylistic range from Chicago composers

Sun Oct 09, 2016 at 12:18 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Stacy Garrop's "Legends of Olympus" was given its world premiere by the Gaudete Brass Saturday at the Ear Taxi Festival.
Stacy Garrop’s “Legends of Olympus” was given its world premiere by the Gaudete Brass Saturday at the Ear Taxi Festival.

One day before the Chicago Marathon with its tens of thousands of runners, the Ear Taxi Festival hosted a significant marathon of its own. The new festival’s four-hour schedule of free contemporary music Saturday afternoon at the Chicago Cultural Center was a resounding success by any measure, attracting a large, diverse crowd who came to hear a wide range of music by Chicago-based composers performed by gifted ensembles and soloists. (Another daylong marathon featuring different music and performers is scheduled Sunday at the same venue.)

Created this year by the indefatigable composer Augusta Read Thomas and Stephen Burns, founder of the Fulcrum Point Ensemble, the Ear Taxi Festival is designed to get the word out about Chicago’s vibrant community of contemporary composers and performers. That news was heard loud and clear on Saturday in performances by the Civitas Ensemble, Gaudete Brass, Fonema Consort, Access Contemporary Music and pianist Winston Choi and flutist Tim Munro. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley was among the soloists in the works, most of them world premieres, written by 13 composers.

The festival has no stylistic orthodoxy, and the range of styles was vast, from the edgy, jagged outbursts of Pablo Santiago Chin’s take on the sirens’ episode in Homer’s The Odyssey, (in)armonia: retratos I, to the translucent shimmers of David ‘Clay’ Mettens’ Tangled lines, luminous tangents.

Among the highlights was Stacy Garrop’s four-part Legends of Olympus, written for Gaudete Brass. Named for the gods Aphrodite, Hermes and Apollo as well as Helios representing the sun, each of the movements had a distinctive profile. Gaudete Brass’s rich, succulent sound became smoky and mysterious in the Helios movement as the swirling, racing trajectory of the sun slowed and gradually vanished into the velvety darkness of night.

Another standout was Sandburg Songs, a collection of five Carl Sandburg poems set by five composers: Andrew McManus, Seth Boustead, Timothy Page, Lawrence Axelrod and Yuan-Chen Li. Bentley ranged from heroic song to conspiratorial half-speech in McManus’s setting of the ominous “the has-been to beachey.” In all five songs, pianist Sebastian Huydts, cellist Alyson Berger and violinist Jeff Yang added sensitive accompaniment, notably their off-kilter, honky-tonk good cheer in Li’s “Mist” and mournful brooding in Boustead’s “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard.”

Flutist Dalia Chin performed Joan Arnau Pàmies' "Produktionsmittel I" Saturday at Ear Taxi Festival. Photo: Nicholas Yasillo
Flutist Dalia Chin performed Joan Arnau Pàmies’ “Produktionsmittel I” Saturday at Ear Taxi Festival. Photo: Nicholas Yasillo

To close Saturday’s marathon, Munro and Choi alternated in hugely demanding works by David Reminick and Igor Santos. Speaking and playing his flute, sometimes simultaneously, Tim Munro captured the gently antic quality of Reminick’s Seven Sombiloquies, inspired by the nocturnal musings of Reminick’s partner, who talks in her sleep. Now forceful, now mumbling, sighing, sputtering, Munro conjured up the irritated confidence of someone declaiming perfect nonsense while fast asleep.

In three etudes for piano and synthesizer by Santos, Winston Choi played two keyboards, one sitting atop the piano just above the regular piano keyboard. Playing the regular keyboard with his right hand and the added one with his left, he unleashed shimmers of microtonal sound that were both otherworldly and mysteriously familiar. No mere technological gimmick, Santos’s synthesizer offered an exciting expansion of the piano’s expressive power.

It’s probably a sign of a healthy festival that one piece left me profoundly unsettled. Flutist Dalia Chin gave a virtuoso performance of the 20-minute Produktionsmittel I (Means of Production I), a 2014 work by Joan Arnau Pàmies, a native of Catalonia, Spain, and a recent doctoral graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Music. Chin’s gasps, terrified whimpers and strangled breathing, punctuated by electronic slashes and horrified eruptions on her flute, were riveting and prompted hearty applause from the large audience. But they were the instantly recognizable sounds of a young woman being brutally assaulted. Pàmies’s opaque program notes mentioned his focus on “the political significance of sonic discourse.” With Produktionsmittel I that focus was distressingly clear. We are in the midst of a presidential campaign that has turned women into objects. Pàmies has given us nothing less than the toxic sounds of that objectification.

The Ear Taxi Festival continues with another free marathon from 12 p.m.-6 p.m. Sunday at the Chicago Cultural Center and a concert Sunday night at Constellation. The festival closes 7 p.m. Monday with the first in this season’s MusicNOW series by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. eartaxifestival.com.

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