Sun Oct 11, 2020

The invaluable umbrella organization New Music Chicago is among the first groups to re-enter the fray with its 15th Anniversary Bash, a two-part concert of contemporary classical music livestreamed Saturday night from the Epiphany Center For the Arts in the city’s West Loop.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with the carefully planned fall-winter seasons of the downtown behemoths of Chicago classical music, mirroring the scheduling mayhem the coronavirus has inflicted on groups and musicians nationwide. Consequently, it has fallen to smaller, more flexible area institutions to provide (mostly virtual) sustenance to live-music-starved audience members.

The invaluable umbrella organization New Music Chicago is among the first groups to re-enter the fray with its 15th Anniversary Bash, a two-part concert of contemporary classical music livestreamed Saturday night from the Epiphany Center For the Arts in the city’s West Loop.

Strict COVID-era protocols were observed. In-person attendance was limited to 20 masked, socially distanced listeners, most of them NMC founding members; others could access the concert online via the organization’s website. Each of the performers also wore a mask. None of the eight pieces making up the first set (I was unable to hear the second set, much to my regret) called for more than one instrumentalist, so the separation of players was not a factor.

Three Chicago-based new music groups affiliated with NMC were represented in the first half—Eighth Blackbird by pianist Lisa Kaplan, Chicago Composers Consortium by composer-pianist Lawrence Axelrod and Elizabeth Start, and International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) by pianist Jacob Greenberg. Chicago composer-performer Janice Misurell-Mitchell doubled as alto flutist and vocalist for her The Light that Burns: in memoriam Gabriel Mitchell. Solo piano pieces made up the bulk of the first portion, with a solo cello work, composer-cellist Start’s April in New Orleans in April, completing the varied and engaging bill.

The inviting intimacy of the center’s second-floor Sanctuary, crowned by neo-Gothic beams, made the handful of listeners feel as if they were part of the show. The sole glitch was a crashed server that played havoc with digital transmission, thus delaying the start of the concert by 15 minutes or so.

Kaplan got things off to an invigorating start with her set of two pieces. Andy Akiho’s Vick (i/y), dedicated to pianists Vick Ray and Vicky Chow, had her conjuring waves of sounds clangorous, furiously rhythmic and doggedly repetitive from a Yamaha “prepared” with various metallic objects. The composer’s program notes refer to an “image of a forgotten dream.” The piece—at 15 minutes, the longest of the first program set— created an effect of Zenlike meditative tranquility, punctuated by bursts of pungent activity, accelerating and slowing.

A mostly still and spare foil was Ayanna Woods’ Patience, part of a series of piano pieces whose scores are designed to fit on a 3×5 card. The means are minimal—a simple idea moving in walking tempo over a field of tonal diatonic harmony, subtly expanding melodically as it builds to a climax and subsides. The brilliant Kaplan dispatched both pieces with her usual command.

A different sort of musical progression—in this case, a slow evolution from light to darkly decaying sounds—forms the expressive parameters of Orlando Jacinto Garcia’s haunting piano piece Oscurecimiento gradual. The work’s eight minutes posit a kind of spectral fluidity from the interplay of timbres, textures and tempos.

Axelrod proved as convincing an advocate for the Garcia work as he was on behalf of his own Talking to Trees, a set of six ingeniously crafted miniatures, moving from quirky pattering through a gossamer fantasy of prepared-piano effects to an airy, fluttering finale. Less clearly is more as far as this music is concerned.

The Start and Misurell-Mitchell pieces, for cellist and vocalizing-flutist, respectively, provided bracing aural contrast to the piano works even as they displayed the recreative skills of the composer-performers.

Start’s April in New Orleans in April turned out to be a lyrical evocation of the eponymous city and particularly its music, laced with distant wisps of blues and zydeco, skittery glissandos and playful slaps on the body of the cello.

The Light that Burns is an elegy for Misurell-Mitchell’s son Gabriel, a filmmaker, artist and songwriter who died in 2012, at 38. (The composer also dedicates the work to all “who have passed away too soon.”) A line from the film Blade Runner is sung/spoken simultaneously through alto flute lines that outline the shape of the words and extend their meaning, in a style that has become Misurell-Mitchell’s quasi-signature. The piece enlisted the composer-performer’s remarkable mastery of extended flute techniques she has made very much her own. She preceded her own piece with an incisive reading of Edgard Varese’s Density 21.5, one of the seminal solo flute works of early 20th century modernism.

The most absorbing work of the set—also the most fun—was George Lewis’ Endless Shout, played by pianist Jacob Greenberg of the Chicago-New York-based International Contemporary Ensemble. Lewis’ language was incubated by his long association with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-based organization begun in the 1960s to advocate new blends of music from wide-ranging traditions (African, African diaspora, European modernism and jazz).

Endless Shout is his joyous tribute to Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and other masters of Harlem “stride piano.” Lewis spins jaunty modernist tropes over various original stride basses, creating cross-rhythms and harmonic effects as inventive and intriguing as those of the 1920s originals on which his multi-part piece is modeled. It’s quite a workout for any pianist, but Greenberg sailed through the several discrete sections with virtuosic panache.

It’s worth noting that NMC’s celebration of its 15 years of committed championing of new and newer music coincided with this year’s Thirsty Ears Festival, Chicago’s only street festival focused on contemporary music, a three-day event ending Sunday at 4710 N. Ravenswood Avenue in the Ravenswood-Lincoln Square neighborhood. The weekend also would have brought the second edition of Chicago’s landmark Ear Taxi Festival of new music, yet another casualty of the coronavirus; Ear Taxi Mach 2 has been pushed back to October 2021.


Posted in Performances