MusicNOW’s bite-sized finale proves light on musical substance

Tue Apr 25, 2023 at 2:09 pm

By John von Rhein

Rachel Barton Pine and Jessie Montgomery performed Montgomery’s Musings for two violins at the MusicNow concert Monday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The final concert of the 25th anniversary season of MusicNOW, Monday evening at Symphony Center, was less notable for its actual musical yield than for what it signaled about the newly focused commitment to young local composers by the series’ parent institution, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, through its Negaunee Music Institute.

Jessie Montgomery, wrapping up the second season of her three-year appointment as Mead Composer-in-Residence, again served as program host and  curator, doing triple duty as violin soloist alongside her colleague, Chicago violin virtuoso Rachel Barton Pine, for the world premiere of her latest work, Musings for Two Violins. The roster was made up of CSO musicians and guests, everyone in top form.

“This evening is about mentorship,” Montgomery told the audience. Indeed it was—not only did she include two pieces by Richard Einhorn—her compositional mentor, but she also presided over the first creative fruits of the CSO’s inaugural Young Composers Initiative.

Begun last fall under Montgomery’s direction, the program enlists youth from across the Chicago region to work with her in the creation of new pieces of chamber music. Five student composers were chosen via competitive application to benefit from her guidance as they set to work during the current season.

One of them, Angel Alday, a student at the Chicago High School for the Performing Arts and the Merit School of Music, had a new piece premiered as part of the concert. Compositions by four other teenaged composers from around the metropolitan area—Lincoln Gibbs, Brandon Harper, Malik Muhammad and Sofia Ruiz Cordero—received their first performances in the Grainger Ballroom preceding Monday’s main concert in Orchestra Hall.  

Montgomery will have another new CSO commission, Transfigure to Grace, premiered under Riccardo Muti’s direction next month as part of the orchestra subscription series, but her MusicNOW piece, Musings, is far more modest in its musical ambitions – a series of six brief violin duets inspired by Bela Bartok’s set of 44 duos, a mainstay of the 20th century fiddle repertory.

The opening section, with its lush, sweeping unisons set off by scampering spiccato passages, established the flavorsome musical terrain to be explored in the course of the remaining movements. Particularly striking were “Initiation Song,” a tender movement inspired by an Angolan lullaby; a sparky “Courante” of running figures in shifting rhythms, and a “Vivo” finale alive with furious finger-strumming and athletic bow strokes ending in a rousing flourish.

No mean fiddler in her own right, Montgomery held her own in the bravura department alongside her colleague—joined with the incisive Barton Pine in warm flights of lyricismor or simply cutting loose in high-energy fiddle pyrotechnics.

The aphoristic nature of Montgomery’s fiddle fragments suggested what was missing on Monday—a big, meaty new work to anchor the program. What we got instead was a kind of musical smorgasbord of 17 little musical appetizers (including the six sections of Musings and the five pieces that make up Leonard Bernstein’s Dance Suite) but no main course. Judging by comments heard from audience members departing the hall, I wasn’t the only one wondering at the end, “Is that it?”

Angel Alday’s untitled wind quintet was heard in its world premiere Monday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

At least the fine performance accorded the Angel Alday piece—thus far, New Work is its only title—gave notice that a promising young composer has emerged in our midst. His brief opus, scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, is put together with remarkable assurance by a composer who only recently turned 17. Songful reflections are slowly passed from one instrument to the next in an emotional arc from darkness to light—a journey reflecting Alday’s personal anxieties during the Covid-19 pandemic. There is creative talent here worth developing.

Of the bits and pieces surrounding these premieres, the most interesting were the contrasting Einhorn works, the solo-violin Maxwell’s Demon #4 and flute-harp duo Panca.

Baird Dodge, the CSO’s fine principal second violin, seized on the manic string-crossings, power chords and repetitive riffs of the former piece (a frisky reimagining of a solo classical violin as a rock-and-roll drum set) as brilliantly as his colleague Jennifer Gunn, flute, and harpist Julia Coronelli traced the pastoral meditation that is the latter.

Montgomery’s Play, a piece from early in her career that she revised this year, is a two-minute romp for flute (Gunn), clarinet (John Bruce Yeh), violin (Susan Synnestvedt) and cello (Katinka Kleijn) tinged with a playful neoclassicism reminiscent of the mid-20th century French school.

It made an effective contrast with the wistful harmonic ambiguities of the 1959 septet Pastoral of Julia Perry, a gifted but abysmally neglected African-American composer who gave better than she got from her native musical establishment. (If a Florence Price renaissance is at hand, why not also a Julia Perry revival?)

That left two musical trifles by the respected American figures Walter Piston and Bernstein to complete the light, scattershot agenda.

The former’s Fanfare for the Fighting French (1944) is from the same group of patriotic fanfares commissioned by conductor Eugene Goossens that produced Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, the sole piece from that wartime project to have survived in the repertory. The work is loud, grand and empty, requiring less time to play than it took for conductor Michael Mulcahy to assemble the ensemble of brass and percussion players.

Bernstein’s Dance Suite is his final work, written a year before his death in 1990. Apart from the rambunctious riffs of the final section, “MTV”—a throwback to the jazzy idiom of Fancy Free, On the Town and other early Lennyiana—sadly there is little to nothing in this grab-bag of sketches worth resuscitating. A splendid quintet of CSO brass players gave it their considerable all.

The 2023-24 MusicNOW roster will include a newly formed composers’ collective and several composer-performers, season details to be announced.         

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