Nevermore Festival takes first flight with joyful ~Nois

Fri May 20, 2022 at 1:14 pm

By Landon Hegedus

~Nois opened the Nevermore Chamber Music Festival Thursday night in Humboldt Park. Photo: Amy Wurtz

The inaugural Nevermore Chamber Music Festival kicked off on Thursday evening with a performance by Chicago-based saxophone quartet ~Nois at Humboldt Park’s Nevermore Performance Space. 

Curated by artistic directors Marianne Parker and Amy Wurtz, the festival boasts an impressive four-day lineup including local stalwarts KAIA Quartet, Fourth Coast Ensemble and Eighth Blackbird.  

On the program for ~Nois’ opening concert was music of the Kind of Kings collective, comprising composers Gemma Peacocke, Shelley Washington, and Maria Kaoutzani. 

There is an obvious chemistry between the two groups, who have been champions of each other’s work since 2018, when Peacocke and the quartet were in residence together at the Ojai Music Festival. The composers’ rock ‘n roll sensibilities—which traces its lineage back to Bang on a Can founder Julia Wolfe—are simpatico with the effusive charisma indie-pop vibe that have become ~Nois’ signature.

The evening opened with Peacocke’s Dwalm, the result of the Ojai sojourn and now a staple of the quartet’s repertoire. Dressed in pastels colors and floral prints, the members of ~Nois — Julian Velasco, Hunter Bockes, Jordan Luloff, and János Csontos, playing soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, respectively — traversed Peacocke’s woozy dreamscape with tremendous facility and sensitivity. Whether in droning peals or delicate whisper, the ensemble brought crisp articulation and pristine intonation to the work’s blocked chords. Even in the intimate yet reverberant venue, the saxophonists exhibited supremely sensitive balance and control of the texture. 

Chicago-based composer Maria Kaoutzani was invited onstage to introduce the next work, Shore to Shore, which the quartet premiered in 2019. In her remarks, she recalled that the work resulted from a bout of homesickness for her native Cyprus, and indeed the work harbors a certain Mediterranean gentleness.

Shore to Shore emerges slowly, segueing from a soft drone into a patchwork of melodies and snatches of metered rhythm that drift in and out like a faraway tune carried by the breeze. While initially enchanting, the ideas unfolded perhaps too gradually, even to the point of becoming wearying—until at last, a plaintive folk melody, played sweetly by Velasco, emerged to galvanize the texture. The rest of the quartet joined in succession, braiding the melody and embellishing into a cord of polyphonic counterpoint until finally converging in radiant unison.

The evening’s fulcrum point was Shelley Washington’s BIG Talk for dueling baritone saxophones, the only piece on the program not specifically written for ~Nois. The work is a response to the catcalling and other verbal sexual harassment that the composer says femme-identifying people experience daily.

Washington, herself a baritone saxophonist, keenly understands the sheer physicality of performing on the instrument, and often channels the bodied nature of its performance into her works. The instrumentation is a fitting one for a bold statement such as BIG Talk, which mines the most physically taxing extended techniques to mirror her painting of relentless sexism.

Such a rhetorical approach to composition threatens to be tiresome, but the resultant work renders its bombast artfully through deceptively nuanced construction and skillful orchestration. Csontos and Velasco (trading soprano sax for baritone) tore through Washington’s iconoclastic statement with aplomb, wrestling the brutal churn of jagged riffs and driving grooves with a doggedness that aligned with the work’s thesis.

The program’s latter half offered contrasting works by Kaoutzani and Peacocke, each commissioned by ~Nois and heard here in their Chicago premieres. (Both works received world premieres earlier this year during Bang on a Can’s Long Play Festival in New York.)

Kaoutzani’s delightfully prickly Count Me In—whose title is a nod to a mid-aughts pop-punk anthem— bristles with a maniacal, clockwork energy. Whereas Shore to Shore adheres to a more consistent sonic palette, Count Me In is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the composer’s myriad musical interests. The backbone of the work is once again a Cypriot folk tune, but this time, it’s studded with angular chromaticism and Afro-Cuban rhythms before collapsing into breathy chorale at the end.

For all the sheer ingenuity of Kaoutzani’s brassy work, ~Nois still seemed to be finding its sea legs with it. The ensemble never quite clicked into the fugue-like pulse, and while the work’s manic energy is certainly a highlight, one wonders whether this performance would have benefited from a more cautious tempo. Missing, too, was the telepathic sense for navigating the work’s often subtle tempo changes the quartet exhibited in the program’s first half. It’s clear ~Nois understands Kaoutzani’s eclectic musical language, but in this this performance, they fell just short of speaking it fluently. 

Peacocke’s Hazel offered a spot of sunlit warmth to close the program. There’s nothing particularly revelatory about the piece’s harmony, which employs popish chord progressions to pleasing effect, but one can’t help but admire the terrific sense of architecture and pacing in Peacocke’s writing. Hazel unfurled with cinematic color and drama, and barring some intonation issues, this soaring, resplendent music sang in ~Nois’ capable hands.

The Nevermore Chamber Music Festival continues through Sunday, May 22, with daily performances at Nevermore Performance Space, 3411 W. North Ave, and livestreamed online.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment