November 3, 2003

Chicago Presents another winner: three composers bring the festivities

Many thanks go to Chicago Presents for scheduling the opening concert of the Contemporary Chamber Players Series on a Friday night. Far too frequently, concerts for new music are relegated to "off" times, such as Sunday afternoons.

The difference between Sunday and Friday is the difference between the day after Christmas and Christmas Eve—the latter is full of reflection and recovery, the former is full of expectation and excitement. And so Friday night, Mandel Hall not only saw a larger and more diverse audience than usual for a Contemporary Chamber Players concert, but also enjoyed the electric atmosphere generated by collective anticipation of the unknown.

The Contemporary Chamber Players program seemed chosen to represent three different strands of contemporary composition. Osvaldo Golijov's Last Round represents that strand which incorporates (or appropriates, depending on what kind of spin you want to put on it) musical influences from outside of the Western classical tradition. Golijov wrote Last Round in remembrance of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, whose tango music has recently gained widespread recognition through recordings by high profile classical artists such as cellist Yo Yo Ma.

While Piazzolla's distinctive style may be readily imitable, capturing his tango energy while not being merely derivative is a challenging task which Golijov, having grown up in an Eastern European Jewish household in Argentina, is in a unique position to accomplish. His success comes in the form of two movements: first, the demonic dance "Movido, urgente—Macho, cool and dangerous," and second, the sobbing song "Muertes Del Angel: Lentissimo."

The arrangement on stage of the two string quartets plus string bass contributed to Last Round's effectiveness; the string bass anchored the center of a semicircle, flanked by the two cellos, and three upper strings stood on each side, facing each other. This arrangement intensified the conversation that took place between the two groups of upper strings in the first movement, the reply always coming as a more frenzied echo of the initial statement. When all the strings played at once, the sound was much richer than expected from only nine instruments. Piazzolla's spirit seemed truly present in the performance.

The exquisitely paced glissandos of the upper strings conjured the raising of an eyebrow to accompany a glance shot across a café on a sultry South American evening.

Dorothy Chang's Wind/Unwind represents that strand of composition predicated on a linear conception of the history of Western classical music. Written for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, Wind/Unwind consciously employs conventional compositional techniques to depict conventional conceptual tropes.

The first movement, for instance, presents only the first few notes of its theme at the beginning, and then progressively adds notes to it, thus representing a spiral unfolding.

The brief second movement entitled "(a little interlude)" is like a palate-cleansing sorbet flecked with red chili pepper—jaunty waltz music interspersed with fiery flourishes. The third movement, entitled "maniacal," employed many sixteenth notes. Though they were amazingly executed by flutist Molly Barth, the rapid notes were most enjoyable when played by the cello and bass clarinet in unison. Resident musical collective Eighth Blackbird made up for the work's lack of originality with their tight ensemble playing.

Sofia Gubaidulina's Perception represents the strand of composition that defies classification by technique, and can be defined only by high quality. Experiencing Perception is perhaps as close as one can come to experiencing a fellow human being's unmediated response to the world. The work seems neither art nor craft, but pure expression. Written for seven strings, prerecorded tape, soprano, and baritone, Perception presents poetry by Francisco Tanzer accompanied by some excerpts from the Psalms and poetry by Gubaidulina herself.

The instruments provide an atmospheric backdrop to the poetry set so exquisitely by Gubaidulina, and delivered so effectively by baritone Stephen Swanson and soprano Tony Arnold as to make an English monolingual believe she could understand German. The prerecorded tape, a device which can easily become jarring when paired with live music, appeared on only three of the work's 13 movements. It melded seamlessly with the performance, adding a dimension that could be achieved no other way, seemingly natural in its otherworldliness. Perception is extremely personal music that must be experienced for oneself.

It is unfortunate that the remaining two Contemporary Chamber Players concerts are scheduled for Tuesday evenings. Though I did once attend an amazingly exciting performance on a Tuesday evening in Mandel Hall (there was a mad rush on the Venice Baroque Orchestra's CDs at intermission, and they quickly sold out), Tuesday is not Christmas Eve. Let's hope that Friday night's audience remembers what its experience was like, and that we bring with us the same anticipation to the next concert.