Chicago composers display an array of individual voices at MusicNow

Tue Nov 20, 2018 at 11:15 am

By Hannah Edgar

Violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and cellist Kenneth Olsen perform Drew Baker’s “Charon” at MusicNOW Monday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

When it comes to new music, Chicago need not be the City of Big Chips on Big Shoulders. Though not a contemporary music Mecca on the scale of New York, the vibrant individuality of Chicago’s new music scene speaks strongly and distinctly for itself.

That conviction was the catalyst behind “Chicago’s Own,”  the MusicNOW concert presented Monday night at the Harris Theater. Expertly curated by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence Missy Mazzoli, the program highlighted the variety of new music in Chicago, with a singular inventiveness being their only common ground.

Take Many Many Cadences (2014), Sky Macklay’s freewheeling prod at conventional harmony. Written for the Spektral Quartet and included on their Grammy-nominated Serious Business, Cadences spins off from its traditional title element and, like a long-winded story, dodges closure by shifting keys, voicings, and even timbres; when the piece does arrive at the final cadence, it’s not bowed but cheekily tapped out on the fingerboard. A stellar CSO string quartet—violinists Yuan-Qing Yu and Simon Michal, violist Catharine Brubaker and cellist Ken Olsen—expertly executed the scurrying unison rhythms and slippery glissandi of the score, albeit with less spunk than Spektral’s rendition.

Northwestern doctoral student Morgan Krauss penned destroy the middle (2013) for oboe, clarinet, and piano. The prepared piano—treated with particle board and tack tape—effectively functions as multiple instruments, resulting in woodblock sonorities in the upper register and fearsome mechanical roilings in the lower. It’s an open question how destroy the middle specially employs “the listener’s interpretation” as a crucial component of live performance, as claimed by Krauss in her program note and pre-performance interview. Still, its sonorities are certainly daring, and oboist Andrew Nogal and clarinetist John Bruce Yeh remained cohesive throughout the gnarly, finger-tangling passages, with pianist Daniel Schlosberg brilliantly manning the piano and its directory of sounds.

Coincidentally, the evening’s most stirring pieces were both composed in 2010 and inspired by Greek myths. That’s where the similarities between Suzanne Farrin’s Uscirmi di braccia and Drew Baker’s Charon end.

Uscirmi di braccia references the story of Apollo and Daphne, its title taken from a sonnet by Petrarch. Originally written for viola and piano, Monday’s version traded out the piano for a more visceral bass drum. Viola and bass drum typically ebb and flow as a unit, the viola passionately rhapsodizing with double-stops and harmonics over drum rolls, until things broaden at work’s end, foregrounding a sort of bass drum recitative inspired by Schubert. Violist Weijing Wang and percussionist Cynthia Yeh joined forces in this idiosyncratic duet, with a panache-filled, dramatic interpretation from Wang and evocative phrasing from Yeh.

Charon’s central concept is straightforward: an ascending modal motif becomes the basis of transformations in the ensemble (violin, cello, and clarinet) until it is undetectable in the musical texture. Though Baker maintains that the piece has no strict programmatic content, its titular nod to the boatman of the Underworld—and the eerie soundscape the technique conjures—calls to mind the dissociation of spirits from the body. At one point, the clarinetist trades a B-flat  instrument for a bass clarinet, braying over wailing strings. Yu, Olsen, and John Bruce Yeh gorgeously blended in the opening unison lines; when they each drifted into their own ghastly worlds, the result was chillingly beautiful.

After such strikingly novel works by Chicago composers, the evening ended, strangely, with a conspicuous outlier from Iceland native Daníel Bjarnason, the only non-local on the program. Reworked from a multi-track cello work into a version for solo cello and chamber orchestra in 2012, Bow to string kicks off with a mixed-meter groove which scaffolds moto perpetuo lines from the cello, later underpinning a sweeping ballad. This ingratiating impulse returns in the third movement, with misty chord progressions drifting behind the arioso cello solo. The second movement stands out, less for its thematic content than its smart, cannily zither-like orchestration.

Many listeners will find plenty to like in Bow to string, especially in the dreamy-eyed final movement. Ultimately, however, Bjarnason’s work was also a program outlier in that it was more sensual indulgence than coherent concept.

That is no slight upon soloist Katinka Kleijn’s wholehearted, nuanced interpretation, nor conductor Alan Pierson’s thoughtful, clear, and controlled podium presence. Bow to string just didn’t justify a trip outside of Chicago.

MusicNOW continues April 8, 2019 at the Harris Theater with a program featuring the world premiere of a chamber arrangement of Missy Mazzoli’s Dark with Excessive Bright., 312-294-3000.

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