Lubman leads Grossman Ensemble in thrilling contemporary fare

Sun Oct 01, 2023 at 10:37 am

By Tim Sawyier

Brad Lubman conducted the Grossman Ensemble Saturday night at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center. Photo: Peter Serling

In 2016, Augusta Read Thomas founded the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition (CCCC) at the University of Chicago, creating something like a think tank for new music. The Grossman Ensemble is the CCCC’s resident band, and this dynamic group opened their season Saturday night at the Logan Center for the Arts.

The UChicago Presents program opened with two world premieres, the first by Basque composer Ramon Lazkano. In his brief prefatory remarks, Lazkano spoke to the talent, focus, and commitment of the Grossman musicians, which were on full display throughout the evening. With Saturday’s incisive performances, the Grossman and CCCC continued to stake a claim as one of the city’s premier vehicles for contemporary music.

Lazkano’s brief commission was A Glitch at the Edge, which the composer said addressed his “concerns” about music, how to convey both “flow and grace” while “walking on a tightrope trying to find balance.” A pointillist aesthetic prevails, with abundant extended instrumental techniques: unpitched blowing of wind instruments, multiphonics from the oboe, a marimba mallet running up the strings of the harp, and a baritone saxophone grunting from its depths.

Brad Lubman, professor of conducting and ensembles at Eastman, presided over the ensemble, and was clearly attuned to Lazkano’s punctilious textures. The work’s carefully crafted seven minutes make a statement, but a uniform one, at least on a first hearing.

Lubman himself provided the evening’s second world premiere with his …to quiet the mind… In his brief introduction, he stated that his music typically favors fast, dense sonorities that “tell you everything all at once,” and that his new score was an exception to this rule. Indeed, …to quiet the mind… felt like the most transparent work of the evening.

It opens with close, subtly shifting dissonances in the woodwinds and vibes that sound almost sweet. A contrasting section introduced by the piano feels jazzy, with a smoky atmosphere from which a mournful saxophone melody briefly emerges. A more agitated episode ensues with the sax wailing and strings skittering, before a somber coda with slowly ascending gestures on the harp.  Lubman again drew exceptional playing from the versatile Grossman members.

Next was Arlene Sierra’s Ballistae, which takes inspiration from the ancient weapon of that name, essentially a gargantuan crossbow. Sierra’s violent score fully captures its military impetus. An opening bang is followed by angular gestures across the ensemble, before the texture thins and is punctuated with isolated barks. The clarinet wails in its highest register, the strings screech frantically, and the cacophony builds to a final deathblow.

Sierra’s work received the same devoted treatment from Lubman and colleagues that typified the evening, even as its unremitting aggression felt somewhat literal.

Kristina Bachrach

And then it was time for the show to be stolen. Soprano Kristina Bachrach was the soloist in Unsuk Chin’s Akrostichon-Wortspiel, a seven-movement song cycle that manipulates texts (beyond recognition) from fairy tale scenes. Bachrach gave a virtual clinic in contemporary vocalism, assertively dispatching the enormous demands of Unsuk’s score.

An eldritch quality suffuses Akrostichon-Wortspiel, giving almost a feel of an updated Pierrot Lunaire. Bachrach’s flexible soprano soared operatically, hissed spitefully, and everything in between. Often the writing has an unhinged quality, though it is not uniformly hysterical. Isolated movements feel more playful, such as the penultimate one where the rapid-fire lyrics are just the letters of the alphabet, though not always in alphabetical order, which contrast with moments of relative harmonic lushness, though still conveyed in Unsuk’s dense idiom.

Bachman was first among equals with Lubman and her colleagues, who included Grossman guests Emmett Jackson on double bass and Jesse Langen on mandolin. Their collective efforts were avidly received, with the soprano and conductor recalled for multiple bows.

UChicago Presents hosts The Alarm Will Sound for the North American premiere of Donnacha Dennehy’s Land of Winter 7:30 p.m. October 6 at the Logan Center for the Arts.

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