Impromptu Festival brings back the intimacy and thrills of new music in the flesh

Sat Jun 26, 2021 at 2:15 pm

By Landon Hegedus

Pianist Koeun Grace Lee opened the Impromptu Festival Friday night in Humboldt Park.

As audience capacity restrictions begin to slacken throughout the pandemic’s denouement, season announcements from Chicago’s musical stalwarts inevitably herald the return of audiences to the city’s most peopled venues. 

While many concertgoers make arrangements to flock to the city’s mainstage offerings, it’s worth calling attention to the smaller-scale performances that are similarly cropping up again like wildflowers between shade oaks.

One such offering is New Music Chicago’s Impromptu Fest. Launched in 2018, the plucky festival upstart kicked off its third iteration in 2021 with back-to-back performances Friday night at Nevermore Performance Space in Humboldt Park.

The festival opened with a program presented by pianist Koeun Grace Lee entitled “Surfing between Tonality and Post-Tonality,” which according to the program notes “reflects distinctive pianistic techniques of composers from South Korea and America who explore the blurring line of tonality and post-tonality through their musical language.” Dr. Lee, who was born in South Korea but who has based most of her career in the United States, was well positioned to survey that gradient, albeit with mixed results in this program. 

The evening opened with David Burge’s Go-Hyang (Ancestral Home), a work from 1994 that crystallizes the American composer’s impressions of Korean culture across six movements performed without pause. Burge is remembered for his association with composer George Crumb, yet this work deals with a different form of abstraction than Crumb’s trademark mysticism. The cultural references in the work are more impressionistic than literal, and Lee’s performance, while surefooted, wanted for a stronger point of view to enliven the piece’s subtly spiritual undertones.

HyeKyung Lee’s GASP is a fine piece of modernist piano literature animated by a driving repeated-note pulse that imbues the work’s glassy harmonies with a sense of motoric propulsion. Such an athletic work demands a similarly muscular approach, and the combination of a slack tempo and somewhat stiff articulation dulled the overall effect of the dynamic piece.

The latter half of Lee’s program proved more effective. Both of the final works on the program are the subject of an extensive long-term recording project and the performances of these works reflected a level of sensitivity and advocacy commensurate with the task at hand. The former of these — and the dark horse highlight of the program — were selections from Wolpe Variations for Solo Piano by Robert Gross, who was present for the performance. 

The program notes cite Frederic Rzewski’s titanic The People United Will Never Be Defeated! as a model for the Wolpe Variations — the title of which refers to 20th-century composer and theorist Stefan Wolpe, whose theories of post-tonality are the foundation of the harmonic structure for Gross’s variations. With such heady reference points as these, Gross’s work threatens to be burdened with esoterica, but the composer keenly couches his dense explorations of post-tonal harmony in familiar aesthetic structures suggested by the titles of each variation.

Lee brought technical precision and thoughtful shaping to each movement, with particular care given to the childlike second variation, “Easily,” and the third, “Like a Baroque Prelude,” whose rhythmic figurations gesture winkingly to Bach’s Prelude in C Major. Whatever verve was missing from the program’s earlier selections was dealt in spades with the final variation of this abridged reading, “Ragtime.”

Where Burge’s work makes oblique references to Korean music, the program’s closer, Jean Ahn’s Folksong Revisited, presents its source material more explicitly. Lee delivered these vignettes with panache, particularly the first, “Nil-lili,” tracing the tuneful folk melodies at the core of each setting in relief against the rippling arpeggios and angular runs that frame them.  

Cellist Audrey Q. Snyder and saxophonist Phil Pierick performed on the second half of Friday’s program at Impromptu Festival.

The evening continued with performances by two up-and-comers on Chicago’s contemporary music scene, saxophonist Phil Pierick and cellist Audrey Q. Snyder, who together presented a program billed as “1reed4strings.”

Pierick and Snyder readily established their fluency in the vernacular of new music in a free improvisation to open the set. However, their creation often fell into the trap of trading musical gestures tit for tat — a trill for a trill, an open-string drone for a multiphonic warble — making for more of a study in musical mimicry than something more transcendent.

A pair of solo works interspersed among the program’s duo selections allowed Pierick and Snyder to expound upon their individual virtuosity. Pierick tackled Shelley Washington’s baritone saxophone romp BLACK MARY, a refreshingly accessible character study of the tough-as-nails Wild West heroine and African-American pioneer Mary Fields that revels in its cowboy tropes with wailing, raunchy themes punctuated by the saxophonist’s stomping feet. Pierick was at home in the piece’s contrasting lyrical melodies, though one could have asked for a more full-bodied commitment to the brassier sections. Snyder was in similarly fine form in Samantha Fernando’s Fault-Line for solo cello, demonstrating impressive control over her instrument in the piece’s subtle exploration of timbre and harmonic temperament. 

The two musicians shone brightest in the program’s selections for cello and alto saxophone together, and never more than in Dorothy Chang’s Walk on Water. The piece’s musical language is in a familiar vein, but Chang’s elegantly crafted counterpoint served as a vehicle for the two musician’s terrifically sensitive interplay. 

Jeffrey Mumford’s reflected air has similar aims, activating fierier shades of tonal colors encompassing a battery of extended techniques. In the work’s more delicate moments, Pierick’s alto sax tone, burnished and round, floated like a halo around the gleaming edge of Snyder’s earthy cello. 

To conclude the evening Pierick and Snyder bookended their set with another bout of free improvisation. Pierick, wielding his baritone sax this time, dive-bombed with squawking overtone glissandi to puncture the fabric of sweeping cello trills and harmonics. Having warmed up from the previous hour, the duo’s latter improvisation favored texture and groove, resulting in a more nuanced dialogue between their musical characters. 

The two musicians could be forgiven for dragging their improvisational jousting a hair too long. After trading a col legno bow-thwack for a tossed-off glissando in a final parry-riposte, Pierick and Snyder burst into laughter, and the audience couldn’t help but laugh with them. This is precisely what has been missing from a year of livestreamed performances — the tension and joyous spirit of witnessing live music unfold in the very room where it’s being made.

Impromptu Fest continues in-person at Nevermore Performance Space, 3411 W. North Ave, or via YouTube livestream Saturday with performances at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. impromptufest.org 

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