MusicNOW marks 20 years with a varied and enjoyable feast

Tue Oct 03, 2017 at 2:18 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

CSO associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong takes a bow with composer John Corigliano following her performance of his "Red Violin Caprices" at MusicNOW's 20th anniversary concert Monday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
CSO associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong takes a bow with composer John Corigliano following her performance of his “Red Violin Caprices” at MusicNOW’s 20th anniversary concert Monday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Encoring compositions is not the usual order of things at MusicNOW. But with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new-music series opening its 20th anniversary season Monday night at the Harris Theater, it made eminent sense to revisit some highlights of the past two decades.

Current CSO composers in residence Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek were the gracious hosts, ceding the evening’s selections to their seven predecessors, most of whom played a part in launching and guiding the series.

The program offering a well-judged cross-section of music, making one marvel at the quality and stylistic variety of those who have held the CSO composers in residence post. To their credit, four of the composers were in the house for the event (John Corigliano, Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas, and Mason Bates).   

Anna Clyne’s Fits + Starts for amplified cello and tape led off the evening.  Clyne’s work is surely crafted, packing a lot into just six minutes. Presented without the distracting dancers of the work’s 2014 MusicNOW debut, one could concentrate more on the music, where Brant Taylor’s performance proved even more compelling than three years ago. The CSO cellist was clearly in synch with Clyne’s mix of edgy drive and high lyric flights against backing prerecorded tape (viola, cello and harpsichord).

Brant Taylor and Cynthia Yeh performed Osvaldo Golijov's "Martiel" Monday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Brant Taylor and Cynthia Yeh performed Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel” Monday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Taylor was also heard in Osvaldo Golijov’s Mariel, partnered with colleague Cynthia Yeh, the CSO’s principal percussionist. Written by Golijov following the death of a friend in a car accident, Mariel is one of the composer’s most intimate and touching works. Taylor and Yeh were in symbiotic accord, bringing an affecting delicacy to their playing, with Yeh coaxing an uncommon degree of dynamic nuance from her marimba.

As in many of her works, Shulamit Ran draws on her Israeli heritage in Birkat Haderekh for mixed quartet. A concise “song without words” with a more urgent middle section, Ran’s work doesn’t offer a whole lot beyond its surface color and ethnic flavoring, but violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, cellist Kenneth Olsen, clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom and pianist Winston Choi (aka the Civitas Ensemble) delivered an atmospheric,  boldly projected performance with Bloom making the most of his klezmer-flavored solos.

John Corigliano turns 80 next year and it was fitting to give the CSO’s first composer in residence two works on the roster. In his video interview, Corigliano stated that his CSO composer residency was “a life-changing experience,” largely because of the orchestra’s commissioning and premiere of his Symphony No. 1. Championed by incoming music director Daniel Barenboim, Corigliano’s deeply felt symphony–inspired by the deaths of several friends from AIDS–remains one of his finest achievements. and is long overdue for revival by the CSO.

Corigliano was represented by two works. A Black November Turkey, heard in the composer’s string quartet arrangement, is a comical “barnyard allegory,” with the “inane patter of clucking chickens” hard to miss as a missile aimed at clueless music critics. Violinists Yu and Hermigne Gagne, violist Danny Lai and cellist Olsen put across a witty, rambunctious performance.

Stephanie Jeong was the violin soloist in Corigliano’s Red Violin Caprices, one of the many concert works the composer has mined from his score for the popular 1997 film. Jeong delivered a powerful tour de force performance, sensitively serving the pages of introspective melancholy and throwing off Corigliano’s artful retake on 19th-century Paganini-esque fiddle fireworks with blazing virtuosity and panache. It was wonderful to see the veteran composer join the CSO’s young associate concertmaster for a double curtain call.

Mason Bates was represented with The Life of Birds for mixed quartet (flute, clarinet, violin and cello). This is one of Bates’ most charming and successful creations, cleverly blending birdsong elements for the wind players with lively sections and a dark-hued Bernsteinian lyricism in five varied movements. Flutist Jennifer Gunn and clarinetist John Bruce Yeh made the most of the evocative avian writing with equally dedicated support by violinist Baird Dodge and cellist Olsen.

Augusta Read Thomas held the CSO’s composer in residence post for nine years, a record unlikely to be broken anytime soon. Violinist Dodge reprised his 2006 world premiere of Thomas’s Carillon Sky, a compact chamber concerto. Dodge gave fine advocacy to Thomas’s restless solo lines conveying her intention of creating a “captured improvisation.” Less successful is the busy, overscored stridency of the backing chamber orchestra, although conductor Cliff Colnot balanced the forces as well as possible.

Music of Mark-Anthony Turnage closed the evening. Via video, the British composer amusingly introduced his No Let Up by calling it “quite minimalist and quite nasty.” Scored for 11 players including pairs of soprano saxophones and bass clarinets, No Let Up displays Turnage’s brand of rock-inspired concert music at its most joyously driving and aggressive.

If Monday’s performance wasn’t the last word in raw intensity, Colnot kept the chugging rhythms and dark wind textures clear, and the performance provided an aptly rousing close to a fitting musical celebration.

MusicNOW continues with “Vijay Iyer: A Portrait” on November 13.

Posted in Performances

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