One thing I’ve discovered about new classical music is that the best way to experience it for the first time is in a live performance, rather than on a CD. Hearing the piece in person allows me to more easily grasp its meaning through the passion and interpretation of the performers. What’s more, many modern pieces create a 3-D sound experience by playing recorded electronic sounds through speakers located all around the concert hall. A few even add dimension to the performance with projections on overhead screens. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra‘s first MusicNOW concert of the season integrated all of these elements, resulting in a satisfying performance experience. In addition, the composers Enrico Chapela, Anna Clyne, Mason Bates, and Marcos Balter were at the concert and gave insights into their works (Ana Lara was traveling in Europe and unable to attend).
Li Po, by the Mexican composer Enrico Chapela, is based on a poem of the same name by Mexican poet José Juan Tablada about the life of the Chinese poet Li Po. Written for chamber orchestra and electronic recording, the music emphasizes soundscapes over melody. The piece alternated between two different styles – delicate sections combining the string section’s seagull-like harmonic slides with Bartok pizzicatos; and rhythmically aggressive sections exploring mixed time signatures and hemiolas. Around the auditorium, speakers emitted rattles and swoops derived from the poem’s phonemes. An overhead screen displayed Spanish calligrammes (poems in which the words or letters make up a shape) from Tablada’s original work in forms such as a house, a frog, and a moon.
Even though this piece required the capable conducting of Cliff Colnot, I was impressed by the amount of chamber music-style communication among the ensemble. I particularly enjoyed watching the interaction between the first and second violinists. Although the calligrammes were meant to enhance the experience, I found them distracting for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t read Spanish, so I didn’t know what they meant. Second, the music was so intricate that I was hesitant to divide my attention between the auditory and visual.
Vision Mantra, by Chicago’s own Marcos Balter, is written for string trio and was performed by Baird Dodge (violin), Li-Kuo Chang (viola) and Jonathan Pegis (cello). The minimalistic piece consisted of brief, arching phrases which crescendoed and decrescendoed as gently as a butterfly’s wings. The delicate effect was achieved through fluttering harmonic notes, rapid string crossings, and ponticello technique played at the tip of each player’s bow. Although I initially enjoyed the fragile music, the novelty wore off as the piece failed to develop its motifs, phrase length, and dynamics. Nevertheless, the string trio showed remarkable control and steady hands while accomplishing the difficult task of performing a very quiet piece at the extreme ends of their bows.
Steelworks, by CSO composer-in-residence Anna Clyne, was the highlight of the evening. The piece literally combined heavy metal and classical instruments in a style reminiscent of Steve Reich. Before the performance, Clyne recounted how she was walking by a steel factory in Brooklyn and was drawn to the sounds. She entered the factory and asked if she could record the sounds and speak with some of the workers. The resulting piece, written for percussion, bass clarinet, and flute/piccolo integrates the recorded sounds with the trio to recreate the workings of a factory.
The composition begins with a film created for the work by visual artist Luke DuBois which incorporates recordings of interviews with employees and machinery at Flame Cut Steelworks, the last working steel factory in Brooklyn. The musicians, dressed in factory-style coveralls, appeared on stage one by one. First came Cynthia Yeh (percussion), playing the marimba to imitate the metallic clang of hammers against steel. Next came John Bruce Yeh (bass clarinet), emulating the sounds of steam released by pipes with sustained, crescendoing notes and staccato bursts. Finally, Jennifer Gunn (flute/piccolo) joined in with flutter-tongue notes, mimicking the high-pitched rattling of the machines. The sonorous midsection of the piece included an interesting sound effect created by brushing either a cello or bass bow against the vibraphone’s bars. During the third section, the “machinery” gradually increased in volume and pitch. Finally, the piccolo played a sustained, piercing note which merged with a matching sound from the electronic recording. The piercing note grew to an ear-shattering level, and the piece ended with a clunk and a shatter as the “machinery” broke down.
Bhairav was written for string quartet by the Mexican composer Ana Lara and performed by Baird Dodge (violin), Rika Seko (violin) Max Raimi (viola), and Jonathan Pegis (cello). The piece began with an extended mournful cello solo soaring over the accompaniment of harmonic notes played by the rest of the ensemble. The viola briefly takes the melody, followed by the first violin. The second violin joins the first, and the two instruments rub long, dissonant notes against each other. Later, the melody dissolves into scampering motifs followed by a vigorous, Shostakovich-style rhythmic section. The final section juxtaposes the legato feel with the driving rhythms. The piece abruptly ends when the first violin slides into the stratosphere while the remaining three instruments play a Bartok pizzicato.
I found this performance of Bhairav fascinating and magnetic. Although the construction seemed deceptively simple, the rhythms were complicated enough that Dodge conducted most of the piece with his scroll in the same way that a conductor would use his baton. I also enjoyed Pegis’s rich tone and expressiveness during his cello solo.
Digital Loom, by CSO composer-in-residence Mason Bates is a piece for electronica (modern-day dance music) and pipe organ. The piece was performed by organist Isabelle Demers. Bates thought it would be interesting to combine what he calls the world’s oldest synthesizer with the new music of electronica. The first section (“Dusk on a Static Empire-“) begins with a dance beat, and the organ gradually joins in with dissonant cluster chords. In the second section (“Fanfare with Breaks-“), the organ’s cluster chords battle against the dance beat, but eventually join the party. The third section (“Through the Atmosphere-“) explores a surreal world of cross-fading crescendoing chords. The fourth section (“Geraldine’s Parlor-“) of the piece is supposed to give the audience the experience of how the organist hears the choir behind the blast of his own instrument. The electronica included whooshing noises which sounded to me as if the organ was traveling through space. In the fifth section (“Deliver Us from Evil-“) the organ and recording partake in a boisterous jam session. I enjoyed the mischievous novelty of the piece, although it brought to mind the Simpsons episode where the elderly organist performed an exhausting rendition of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”.
There are three MusicNOW concerts remaining in the series – Monday, December 13, 2010; Monday, January 31, 2011; and Monday, March 21, 2011 (click here to purchase tickets). The performances are a wonderful way to get a personal look at the composers and their music in the intimate Harris Theater. I would highly recommend these concerts to anyone who is looking for a unique and challenging listening experience. And don’t forget stick around for pizza and beer after the show.
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