Whimsy, improvisation kick off Impromptu Fest 

Wed Sep 13, 2023 at 10:17 am

By Katherine Buzard

The Sapphire Winds performed at Impromptu Fest Tuesday night at Epiphany Center for the Arts. Photo: Amy Wurtz

New Music Chicago opened the fourth edition of its Impromptu Fest Tuesday night. The festival, titled “New Music, New Connections,” runs through Saturday at venues across the city. The 15 performances during the course of the festival range from solo artists to chamber music and larger ensembles, showcasing the vibrant contemporary and experimental music scene in Chicago.

On Tuesday night, we caught the newly formed Codex Trio, presenting a program titled “Explorations in Contemporary Classical and Improvised Music,” and the Sapphire Wind Quintet, performing music by contemporary women composers. (All performers on Tuesday night were women, including the artist playing the first set, pianist Holly Roadfeldt.) 

Tuesday’s trio of concerts were held in the atmospheric Epiphany Center for the Arts in the West Loop. A historic, decommissioned Episcopal church that has been turned into an arts venue, complete with bar and art gallery, the venue provided a relaxed space for the concert, with tables and chairs set up cabaret-style in the nave for the audience to sip beverages during the sets. 

The Codex Trio is a young new group (founded in April) composed of violinist Amanda Beaune, cellist Isidora Nojkovic, and pianist Zaira Castillo. They presented an ambitious program of esoteric contemporary music with a focus on improvisatory elements. First up was Peter Kramer’s Three Gestures, a somewhat amorphous collection of notes held together by sporadic moments of unison. Here, Castillo provided assured anchoring, though the piano was slightly out of balance with the other instruments. 

Of a similar sound world was Refinites by Chicago-based composer and one of the Impromptu Fest organizers, Ben Zucker. Refinites mines uncomfortable dissonances with an audio track of an electronic drone that brought to mind a tornado siren or power tool. The piano then outlined the slow harmonic movement with big, low chords while the strings improvised on top. The improvised elements were compelling enough on their own without the drone, which became grating after a while and was slightly out of balance with the instruments.

Pauline Oliveros’ Tree/Peace made similar use of improvisatory techniques, this time evoking the life cycle of a tree. Though slightly more organic-sounding than Refinites, it proved too similar in affect and amorphousness to the previous two works. Any of these selections on their own would’ve been intriguing additions to a more traditional program, but heard in direct succession, they lost their potency and originality.

The Codex Trio performed a set at Impromptu Fest. Photo: Amy Wurtz

Providing a slightly different texture was Light and Matter by the recently departed Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. The rhythmic impulse underlying the piece differentiated it from the previous selections, as well as the more intricate textures and demonstrative, virtuosic playing it required. The group seemed to be in their element, with strong playing and youthful energy from all three. Intonation between the players, here and in the previous works, could have been tighter to make the rare moments of unison and consonance ring. Nonetheless, the trio played this ambitious and challenging program with assuredness, which will undoubtedly deepen as they continue to play together.

Next on deck was Sapphire Winds with music by contemporary female composers. Though the quintet only became a member of New Music Chicago this year, they have been playing together since 2004. Their experience was manifest in a well-paced set that balanced challenging contemporary sonorities with somewhat lighter fare and a dash of whimsy. 

Valerie Coleman’s charming Red Clay and Mississippi Delta opened the program. Featuring bluesy solo riffs over a laid-back groove, the piece showcased the quintet’s virtuosity, especially in clarinetist Anna Najoom’s extroverted opening solo. Their longstanding experience was also evidenced by the tight ensemble of the rapid scalar passages.

At the center of Sapphire Winds’ set was Riding the Huxley by Devin Clara Fanslow, based on the steampunk young adult novel Leviathan by Scott Westerfield. The fantastical, episodic piece demonstrated many musical influences, from Wagner’s Rhinemaidens and tango, to mesmeric, repetitive sequences à la Philip Glass. Horn player Angela Bilger impressed with her lyrical playing in the quasi-religioso slow section while also matching the agility of bassoonist Mackenzie Brauns in the rhythmically complex bassline that followed. Oboist Allison Baker Wehrle also provided an endearing melody over the tango-like ostinato bassline.

Keeping with the theme of whimsy was The Flight of the Brave Chicken by Shulamit Ran, a duet for bass clarinet/B-flat clarinet and flute/piccolo that depicts a confrontation between a menacing ogre (the clarinet) and a brave chicken (the flute). Najoom and flutist Kim Fleuchaus were worthy adversaries, each bringing out their respective characters to great effect. Starting with the most disparate instruments (bass clarinet and piccolo), the opponents eventually trade them in for more compatible bedfellows (B-flat clarinet and flute), until the two finally come together in harmony.

Closing out the program were Where Our Breath Comes From by Jungyoon Wei and New Dancing Shoes by Amy Riebs Mills. The former was a bit stagnant in its prolonged use of static chords, while the latter proved more accessible fare. Mills’ mix of different dances, from a raucous tune in 7/8, to a breezy waltz, to a galumphing country hop, was a delightful way to end the evening.

Impromptu Fest runs through Saturday. All performances are free to the public. impromptufest.org

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