Talea Ensemble spotlights young composers in Contempo season opener

Sat Oct 28, 2017 at 1:10 pm

By Tim Sawyier

The Talea Ensemble performed in Contempo's season-opening program Friday night at UC's Logan Center.
The Talea Ensemble performed in Contempo’s season-opening program Friday night at UC’s Logan Center.

The University of Chicago’s Contempo ensemble launched its 53rd season Friday night at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park. Formerly the Contemporary Chamber Players, Contempo changed course 13 years ago under then-director Shulamit Ran to become a “new music collective”–one showcasing the talents of the university’s composers and resident ensembles as well as guest performers.

Contempo hosted the New York-based Talea Ensemble as one of the latter. Talea’s program, somewhat grandiosely dubbed “The Young and Brilliant,” was devoted to music of five European composers in their 30s.

In her brief opening remarks Contempo artistic director Marta Ptaszyńska said she sought “variety” above all in selecting the repertoire for this program. This she certainly achieved, assembling five works in a wide range of compositional idioms that made for an engrossing evening. Four of the five selections were being heard in their U.S. premieres, the closing Ondřej Amámek work in its Chicago premiere.

The program opened with two movements of Danish composer Nicolai Worsaae: “Griet’s Træ,” the final movement of his WaWV (Wesenheit ab Wesenheit Vollendet, or, “Being from Being Completed”) and Du hast gesagt, Vol. 3, an epilogue to the former. Both are scored for soprano, bass clarinet, percussion, double bass, and electronics, “Griet’s Træ” takes as its text a poem by the East German spy Jörg Meyer, written while he was held in solitary confinement in Denmark in the 1970’s, and Du hast gesagt, Vol. 3 sets a sentence from The Communist Manifesto.

Extended techniques abound in these two short extracts. When not singing terse wordless phrases, soprano Alice Teyssier spent much time alternately blowing tonelessly into a trumpet, clacking its valves, and smacking its mouthpiece, while percussionist Matthew Gold drew a bow across divers items including bicycle spokes and a table lamp. Impossibly high harmonics on the double bass, further key clacking on the bass clarinet, and a recording of Meyer reading his poem rounded out the textures. Conductor James Baker unified these various elements into a compelling evocation of the psychic desolation the spy-poet experienced.

Justyna Kowalska-Lasoń’s A Light exists in Spring for string quartet was next to receive its U.S. premiere. The four players were heavily amplified, which allowed them to play with soft timbres that nonetheless came across as forcefully present. Large swaths of the works are placid and loosely tonal. Upon amplification these textures created an ethereal stasis, disturbed only by sickly, subtle slides called for by the Polish composer. Alternating agitated sections provided moments of contrast in this commendable opus.

Vito Žuraj’s ensemble work Framed closed the first half. The work’s title refers to the unhappy phenomenon in tennis when a player inadvertently hits a ball with the frame of his racquet, sending it in some errant direction, often the way of spectators. The notes Žuraj provided for the work suggest it is structured along alternating soli-tutti lines, but this form was not discernible on a first hearing. Mostly the work consisted of pitchless pointillist noise — key clacking, percussive effects on piano, and pizzicato flurries. While on first encounter Framed may come across as formless, there is an undeniable whimsy to the wash of “effects,” and again conductor Baker led an incisive and committed performance from the Talea players.

British composer Christian Mason’s Noctilucence opened the second half. Scored for an expanded Pierrot ensemble (including a second violin, viola, and percussion), Noctiluence takes its name and inspiration from rare noctilucent clouds, which form in the highest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. This is conveyed via an underlying, churning line discernible more or less from the single movement’s beginning to end, adorned with jagged interjections from piano, piccolo, and E-flat clarinet, as well as spastic gestures from the string players in their own instruments’ stratospheres.

The evening closed with the Chicago premiere of Adámek’s Ça tourne ça bloque. The work is built around recordings Adámek made during a residency in Kyoto of his French friends observing cultural differences between the Japanese and themselves. Adámek heavily edited and spliced the recordings, chopping up words and sentences. Translated supertitles project the words themselves, but even these, too, become disorganized, jagged and superimposed, ultimately resembling an e. e. cummings poem in motion. Ça tourne ça bloque is innovative and palpably dance-like throughout, in moments sounding like a 21st-century Rite of Spring.

Baker had to stop conducting and take the work from the top because of a malfunctioning monitor. That issue was rectified quickly, and Baker and the Talea players gave a rousing account of Adámek’s engaging work.

Contempo returns to Logan Center on Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. The jazz double-bill features the Imani Winds, Ensemble dal Niente, and pianists Daniel Pesca and Craig Taborn in works by Marta Ptaszyńska, Reena Esmail, and Augusta Read Thomas. https://chicagopresents.uchicago.edu/series/contempo

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