Weinberg’s “Caligo” provides a compelling highlight in engaging MusicNOW finale

Tue May 24, 2022 at 1:20 pm

By John von Rhein

Cellist Gabriel Cabezas performed Alyssa Weinberg’s Caligo with Jeffrey Milarsky conducting in the CSO’s MusicNOW finale Monday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Much as her predecessors in the post of Chicago Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence have done, Jessie Montgomery has devoted a hefty percentage of the initial programs she curated for the CSO’s MusicNOW contemporary music series to works by colleagues, mentors and teachers.

She paid homage to three such figures with the mostly appealing agenda of new and recent music she put together for the series’ season finale, Monday evening in the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park.

The four pieces played by members of the CSO and guests under the tight, coherent direction of Jeffrey Milarsky in their own ways stretch the definition of the concerto beyond traditional models, lightly referencing the musical past while providing fresh aural perspectives on the interaction between solo voices and the surrounding bodies of instruments.

Not everything worked, but everything was realized at the high level listeners have come to expect from the series, regardless of who presides over it. Each visiting composer briefly introduced his or her work in conversation with Montgomery.

The brief curtain raiser, Montgomery’s own Overture (2022), could be considered a miniature concerto for orchestra. Composed for a multimedia children’s concert, the five-minute opus moves in a solemn, almost hieratic procession of chords, its dusky colorations and studied seriousness giving it a very different character from the frisky, vernacular-flavored abandon one associates with much of her music.    

Then it was on to the oldest work on the bill, Joan Tower’s Rising (2010), originally scored for solo flute and string quartet, heard here in the composer’s own (uncredited) arrangement for flute and string orchestra.

At 83, with a career spanning more than 60 years, Tower remains one of the deans of American classical composition, an important pathbreaker in the long struggle of women composers to be accorded the respect and visibility—make that audibility—in our musical life comparable to those of their male peers.    

Action and reaction are, as Tower pointed out, dynamic elements common to her music. She sends the flute protagonist through a series of upwardly spiraling scales, mostly chromatic, set against the contrasting static and downward motions of the accompanying strings. Their dialogues are nothing if not inventive: at times scampering and playful, at times pensive and lyrical, each side sparking the other.

Like Tower’s other solidly constructed music, Rising reminds us that tonal harmonic conservatism need not feel stale or reactionary to today’s ears as long as the composer has something personal to express and the surety of craft to express it.

The winning rapid-fire exchanges between soloist and ensemble were expressively designed to show off the virtuosity of the eminent flutist Carol Wincenc, who gave the premiere. The solo duties were taken on this occasion by Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, the CSO’s splendid principal flute. He made the score’s modest flashes of bravura very much his own, bringing amazing articulation and a wide palette of tonal colors to the score’s lucidly plotted trajectory. In so doing, he earned a rousing ovation that he shared with his string colleagues and the composer.

The piece that pushed the evening’s stylistic envelope the farthest was Alyssa Weinberg’s Caligo (2019), for cello and chamber orchestra.

The score is another in a series of collaborations between the composer and cellist Gabriel Cabezas, co-founders of the new music and experimental dance collective Duende. The cello is cast less as a soloist per se than as a kind of primus inter pares, slowly moving through an otherworldly soundscape of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, percussion and strings “like a beam of light. . .hinting at a path through the fog,” as Weinberg writes in her program note.

Many pieces like Caligo (the Latin title roughly translates as mist, darkness and obscurity) that germinate from a single idea often fail to develop that single idea in a structurally or expressively meaningful way. Not so with Weinberg. The piece gathers sonic intensity in discrete layers rather than phrases. Skittering runs, guttural growls, eerie glissandi, ominous tremolos and brooding silences in the cello part are like signposts in a musical journey that is nothing if not absorbing in its quiet, hallucinatory power.

Such were the skills of Monday’s performers, including the remarkably gifted Cabezas, that one was held in rapt anticipation of how these strange sounds would evolve and where the cello protagonist would arrive at the end of the journey—as if ready to begin again, as it turned out. One could hardly have imagined a more atmospheric exploration of the fascinating sonic vistas Weinberg has opened up with her piece.            

The closing work, James Moore’s Sleep is Shattered (2021, orchestrated 2022), is most notable (at least to these ears) for borrowing the electric guitar from the pop music world, plopping it amid a large acoustical orchestra and pumping up the amplification so that the two musical forces are locked in a pitched battle to see who can twang and shout the most aggressively.  

A guitarist who specializes in contemporary music, Moore wrote this, his first orchestral piece, for the guitarist Marc Ribot, but Montgomery persuaded the composer to assume the role of soloist for Monday’s Chicago premiere. Moore did so with a manic energy to match that of his music. When he wasn’t sending explosive riffs across the surrounding body of winds, timpani, strings and hyperactive percussion, he fiddled with the sound apparatus at his feet, thereby manipulating degrees of loud, louder and loudest.

Monday’s audience seemed to find more fun in this funky pop-classical hybrid than this stony-hearted reviewer, for whom 25 minutes was much too long for music that had little to express beyond sonic impudence. They applauded composer, conductor and ensemble lustily.

MusicNOW will return to Symphony Center for its 25th season in 2022-23. The four-concert series will open October 24. Season highlights include works by Richard Einhorn, Osvaldo Golijov, Carlos Simon and Alvin Singleton. cso.org/musicnow.       

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Weinberg’s “Caligo” provides a compelling highlight in engaging MusicNOW finale”

  1. Posted May 26, 2022 at 6:55 pm by Jane Heron

    Hello, John. Thanks to your “old ears” for sharing your “sound reviews” with us. Jane Heron

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