rvw: Chicago Composers Orchestra - Jan '11

While Chicago can boast many fledgling and established new music ensembles, it has, to my knowledge, only one new music orchestra--The Chicago Composers Orchestra--which presented its 2nd concert of its nascent existence Friday night.  In about an hour of music, the four-piece program presented the audience with a wide range of 

contemporary styles techniques without overwhelming, leaving us wanting more.

The experience begins and ends with the space, Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall--part of Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Building.  Small for an orchestra hall, medium to large for a recital hall, it was nearly packed, making the evening both festive and intimate.  And, unlike a lot of new music concerts--MusicNOW, Fulcrum Point, etc--there were a lot of my fellow composers there, making the post-concert wine and cheese reception just a little more raucous.
The concert began with Barber's Adagio for Strings, which may come as a surprise, seeing as Barber died 20 years ago and the piece is one of the most cliché pieces of all classical music.  But, at least one of my friends came specifically to see it; come for the Barber, stay for the other stuff.  But I was fresh off the street and was still in "transportation mode", making the transition to the bottom of the soul precipitous and jolting.  [Maybe there was some practical reason to put Barber first, but, aesthetically, I disagree.]  And though the piece is technically easy--sustained notes and slow-moving lines--it is insanely difficult due to the slow tempo and sparse counterpoint; the dryness of the room also didn't offer the performers anywhere to hide.  All things considered, it held together under the effusive direction of Matthew Kasper--very un-Boulez.
The second piece was by Chicago composer Brandon Harrington: A Place For All Serious Considerations.  Despite the title, I rather enjoyed the whimsical romp through timbre and texture, guided by a spastic melodic idea presented at the opening.  Though not predictable, the form emerged through clear and precise choices, unfolding almost organically and making it easy to remember the various sections--even now, over 12 hours later.  [Form always helps the audience parse new music; something contemporary composers often ignore.]  The star of the piece was not the melody itself but how it unfolded; Harrington made good use of the various sections of the orchestra while keeping the colors distinct and unique.  [7.2 / 10]
Then, intermission.
Then, Luke Gullickson's Night Air.  The title, apparently, comes from a track by Tortoise, a Chicago post-rock band.  If you're not familiar with the band, you should be (though this track, Night Air, is neither the easiest nor the most difficult to ingest--nor the most memorable).  [They're paying on the 12th of Feb at the Bottle; I'll be there.]  I didn't know this track while hearing the piece; now, listening after-the-fact, it wouldn't have informed my listening too much.  Gullickson's piece opens with a metronomic high hat that then serves to connect disparate sections together.  I played in this post-jazz band once, and the guitarist wrote a piece called "Night Walk" in which he envisioned a guy walking from club to club, hearing different styles as he sauntered.  Which was neither like nor unlike Gullickson's piece.  [Did you know that the French say "Pour en revenir à nos moutons" (Let's get back to our sheep) to mean "let's get back to that elusive thread of conversation we just lost.  I think that ties into this discussion.]  And so, like layers of frosting in between a seven-layer cake, the high hat really tied the piece together.  But the actual music, the stuff in between, I'm having a hard time assessing right now--through no fault of its own; I'm sure it was very memorable.  Ok, now I'm starting to feel bad that this part of the review sucks so much--mostly because I skimped on the last Gullickson piece I heard at the Sissy-Eared Mollycoddles Concert at the Green Mill.  He's got chops as a composer--the moment to moment melodic licks and textures are well-crafted--but if he were an architect, his buildings would fall down like a German post-industrial band.  [.9 / 10]
The final piece of the concert was Romanza by Andrea Clearfield.  The piece sounded like this: listen to a lot of Debussy, Scriabin, and maybe John Williams, then take yourself out for a nice dinner--just by yourself--go home, drink some absinthe, fall asleep and have this dream: you're an aspiring composer hoping to "make it", but you move to New York and the weight of the city (and the cost) crush you, causing you to jump out of the window of your Brooklyn loft space; and, as you fall in slow motion, you hear the music you've been trying for so many years to write: it's perfect: beautiful, inspiring, dramatic, familiar (and almost cliché) but somehow not.  It's sorta like that but maybe not quite so amazing.  The first half mixes quasi-tonal, probably octatonic, maybe some whole tone or French 6th chords--somewhere in between impressionist and Scriabin.  But you can tell it was written in the last 20 years (partly because these styles were anathema to composers in mid century)--somewhere in between neo-Romantic and post-modern.  However, the strange and unexpected silences were distracting (or distractingly exectuted), there were a few too many dramatic runs in the solo violin part, and the overall form really was like a dream of a dream and kept starting new sections that drifted back to sounding like all the previous sections.  And, no real climax.  Still, I liked it.  I'm a sucker for late-19th / early-20th century music. [7.1 / 10]
Nevertheless, the Chicago Composers Orchestra is off to a good start.  It fills a necessary niche in the musical landscape in Chicago: playing the orchestral music of living composers. [Unless a composer has the support of a University, it's a real challenge to gather orchestral forces together to play a piece.]  So, unless you want orchestral music to die, go check out and support this fledgling orchestra, who, in spite of the daunting challenges, are making it happen.  [Which is more than I can say for most of you.]
Metareview: I thought this review started out a little bland but really picked up speed when I tapped into my well of pent up ire.  I hope you liked it (or hated it); it's pretty self-indulgent, but then again, so is new music.  Rating for this review: [5.2 / 10]

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