rvw: Fulcrum Point - Motown Metal

Bold, brassy, and suave, something alchemical emerged Wednesday night as Fulcrum Point opened it's season at the Harris.  Dubbed "Motown Metal", the concert turned the Harris into one big blast furnace, turning disparate pieces of metal into some sort of high-grade steel. The concert began with Michael Daugherty's Motown Metal--the title track.  Yesterday, in my preview, I called Daugherty a "gimmicky" composer.  This piece reminded me: he's also "kitschy".  Every one of his pieces that I know has a program that is based on something distinctly American: Superman, Elvis, the auto industry.  Based on the title and program notes, I expected some tone painting, making reference to "muscle cars" and "assembly lines".  These only came through vaguely.  Instead of representing tons of Detroit steel, it had about all the weight of a Smart Car--a sort of fanfare for car-loving Americans.  Lots of craft, little inspiration: he must have many commissions.  (3.9 / 10)  [I could tell that the skill of the ensemble, brass under the direction of Stephen Burns, greatly exceeded what the piece required: it was like watching Mario Andretti drive a Chevy Nova.]

Next was a piece by Bang on a Can composer David Lang: the anvil chorus.  Lang wanted to go back to the early days of percussion, when it was just repeated banging, like on metal to make stuff.  Showing his minimalist roots, Lang's piece is based on shifting numerical patterns, related more by multiplication than addition.  For a brief moment in the middle, it gets pretty cool; the opening patterns return triumphantly and are supported by a quirky, almost toe-tappable beat.  And then it goes back to just being abstract patterns--albeit interestingly polyrhythmic. (4.5 / 10)  Another solid gold performance: Jeff Handley (dressing the part in blacksmith's apron) and Tina Laughlin made it look easy [though I don't think the audience needed an explanation why Handley was in costume].
Finally in the 3rd piece, the fulcrum, things got revved up.  Stephen Burns, Fulcrum Point's Artistic Director, played, Metallics, a solo trumpet piece with electronics by Yan Maresz.  While many piece with electronics will either play a pre-recorded track or use computer-based effects, this piece seemed to do both.  The logistics, though still somewhat of a mystery, were flawlessly executed by composer and performer alike; the quality of the sound coming through the speakers seemed higher definition than many similar pieces and were both ear-catching and intriguing.  The spatialized reverberations and other assorted manipulations bounced around the room as Burns pulled out various mutes and extended techniques, becoming a medium through which the music flowed rather than just a performer.   I would gladly see this piece again.  [And you have the chance to at Fulcrum Point's next concert in early November.] (7.2 / 10)

Then, a quintet of the Fulcrum brass hammered out Stefan Freund's Metal.  The three movement work was on the verge of momentum failure during the first movement, on the verge of film score in the second, and tried too hard in the third.  In the first, I had the sneaking suspicion that he composed it on the computer with Finale or Sibelius; much of the rhythmic drive was completely dependent on one person playing at exactly the right time and at the right volume.  The Fulcrum Pointers seemed as polished as ever, and yet the momentum of the music kept fizzling out.  The second movement was like from a funeral scene in the Middle Ages but with wrong notes thrown in so you know it's contemporary.  Just like Prokofiev always said, if you find yourself writing music that is too earnest and pretty, just smudge some of the notes around so people know you're being ironic.  Overall, a pretty good piece for a doctoral candidate.  (4.9 / 10)
To close, Chicago got to hear yet another piece by Mark Anthony Turnage: Out of Black Dust.  Similar to how he  Beyoncé, Turnage takes inspiration from a Classic Led Zeppelin tune and uses it for much of the melodic content.  But it's always a little off or in parallel seconds--gotta be ironic.  It's high energy and loud--not a terrible way to finish.  And at least, afterwards, no one will ever say "More cowbell".  [8 of them playing in unison is the best compositional idea evar.]
(5.6 / 10)

Once again, the success of Fulcrum Point's programming is in the metallurgy more than in individual pieces.  Whereas many Chicago area new music groups focus on a style, location, or composer, FP's program slices the new music pie in a different direction.  Again I noticed that the crowd is not your typical new music crowd, only recognizing 3 familiar faces: Stacy Garrop, George Flynn, and Janice Misurell-Mitchell--all Chicago-based composers. The audience seems to be attracted by the welding of music to extramusical references to mainstream culture.  
Come for the intersection of culture, stay for the beer.  To celebrate the Motor City, the reception included Stroh's, which I had never actually had [though my parents' friends were down with it].  I almost didn't indulge but figured it was the perfect opportunity to try it.  Not terrible, but I think I'll stick to PBR just for its cachet.

Filed under: Fulcrum Point, review

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