Another take on the Contempo 40th Anniversary Concert

On Tuesday, October 26, Contempo—formerly known as the Contemporary Chamber Players—held their 40th Anniversary concert at the Chicago Historical Society on the near North Side. Contempo seems to be at a crossroads. Along with its new name, it has stated its desire to expand its audience beyond the University of Chicago (ergo the near North Side venue), and even redefine its musical role. This latter goal was accomplished by the unorthodox programming of the night in which, for the first time, Contempo paired its typical repertoire of contemporary classical music with music from outside the classical domain: jazz.

The first half of the night was the contemporary classical world’s domain, beginning with the Pacifica Quartet’s marvelous performance of George Crumb’s Vietnam War-inspired masterpiece “Black Angels.” The one flaw in this dynamic performance was in the amplification. While the microphones picked up quite a bit of nuance, they lacked the dynamic range necessary to make people jump from their seats during the startling first notes.

Following the Pacifica Quartet’s performance, members of eighth blackbird gave a first-class reading of Chen Yi’s “Qi,” a piece for flute, cello, piano, and percussion. Of particular note was Matthew Duvall’s driving performance on a variety of percussion instruments. The first half closed with Cliff Colnot leading the combined forces of the Pacifica Quartet and eighth blackbird in an interpretation of Jonathan Harvey’s “Song Offerings,” featuring the soprano Valdine Anderson. Again, the performance was well controlled and tight, but the piece didn’t fare as well, coming across as dry and sterile.

Arguably, two of the three new music selections were programming blunders—Chen Yi’s “Qi” and John Harvey’s “Song Offerings.” Contempo is looking for a new image, but the contemporary classical portion of the concert had the same old academic, high-modernist style as their usual offerings. This is a vital music, and perhaps it is time for Contempo to start promoting a new generation of composers who are writing high-quality, yet audience-friendly, music.

On this night, however, the bulk of Contempo’s desire to expand its audience fell on the second half of the concert, a solo piano recital featuring Brad Mehldau. Solo piano is one of the more daunting tasks in jazz, as an artist is completely exposed to the audience, responsible for creating all aspects of the music and keeping the listener engaged at all times. So much of the joy of jazz music rests in the creative interplay between improvising musicians. In a solo performance, this interplay must be internalized; a solo pianist is not asked merely to deliver a monologue but to engage in a series of conversations with himself.

The challenges of solo performance were exhibited in all their complexity by Brad Mehldau’s often frustrating set of unaccompanied piano music. Mehldau’s playing showed flashes of pianistic brilliance throughout, but all too often proved repetitive and unfocused as he failed to imbue the music with the dynamism that has characterized his redoubtable body of trio work. In recent years, Mehldau has made what sounds like a concerted effort to restrain his most fiery improvisatory impulses. As a result, his newest trio work, captured on the album Anything Goes, comes across as more restrained, if more mature, than his dazzling playing in the 1990s.

Many of the pieces Mehldau played on Tuesday night were crafted in this deliberately pared-down aesthetic. However, unlike in his trio work, Mehldau’s improvisations struggled to achieve a coherent structure. The melodies and harmonies meandered, moving along without any audible purpose, robbing even the most virtuosic moments of their power. Mehldau possesses tremendous command of the keyboard, but for much of Tuesday night he seemed to lack a vision commensurate with his technical skills.

Even though much of Mehldau’s set could be categorized as a disappointment, his tremendous musicianship shined through on a number of selections. Theolonious Monk’s composition “Monk’s Dream” has been a fixture in Mehldau’s repertoire throughout his career, serving as a template for some of his finest improvisatory moments. Returning to this trusty standby, Mehldau delivered his most dynamic performance of the evening, an emotionally-involved reading that transformed Monk’s beautiful harmonies into an engrossing personal statement.

The freshness of “Monk’s Dream” stood in contrast to the repetition of ideas that only increased as the evening went on. Mehldau is a highly lyrical player, and without a balanced set of material his playing can descend into a stagnant rhythmic uniformity. As medium-tempo waltzes melded into languid ballads, the lack of textural inventiveness allowed the audience to drift into a trance-like state. In his trio, Mehldau has two rhythmically-minded musicians improvising with him, but the solo format demands that the pianist create this rhythm on his own. At least on this night, Mehldau could not consistently create interesting rhythmic structures, allowing his playing to drift along without its usually strong moorings.

Contempo’s 40th Anniversary concert was an intriguing mix that points toward a future at the vanguard of contemporary programming, classic or otherwise. The failures in the compositions of the first half and improvisations of the second were to some extent offset by the uniqueness of the event itself. There were many frustrating moments in the music, but at least the audience could take away the satisfaction that they had seen serious musicians pushing themselves toward new sonic horizons, which is all too rare in today’s musical climate.