MusicNOW Ends Season with Bells and Whistles

The CSO's MusicNOW season ended with concert of 4 pieces in 90 minutes, 2 of which were world premières, and 1 which has already become a classic in just 20 years. The 2 premières were from composers-in-residence Anna Clyne and Mason Bates; in between, there was an ethereal work from Nathan Davis; to conclude, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's Graal théâtre, une espèce de violin concerto.

After last concert's genre blending with German electronica duo Mouse on Mars, this concert was a return to a more familiar format, making it easier to judge. Overall, I give it a [ 7.3/10 ]; pretty good, not bad.
Spangled Unicorn (2011)
The concert opened with 10 brass players sitting on stage tacitly while 2 children's voices read a story over the speakers about a little girl and a unicorn. What followed was music by Anna Clyne called Spangled Unicorn. Reminiscent of David Lang's Are you Experienced? [which is about the thoughts you had upon being struck on the back of the head]. the music isn't about the adventure with the unicorn, it's about the girl's dream after her adventure.
Compared to what I've heard by Clyne in the past, the piece was a big disappointment. Her orchestra piece, Tender Hooks [listen here], at least uses a contemporary language [influenced by John Adams?]; her last piece at MusicNOW, steelworks, combined simple elements to build complex structures.
Spangled Unicorn, though, is banal ideas combined in boring ways--and then brought back a second time. There's some fanfare, a waltz that hangs around for too long, and there's even a polka that sounded like one of Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Not unicorny at all; just corny. And nothing dreamy about it. [ 2.3/10 ] 

Like sweet bells jangled (2009)
Nathan Davis' piece was a duo for clarinet and crotales that modulated one another through a process called ring modulation. This piece sounded way dreamier; the pitches and overtones combined--adding together and subtracting--to produce a reverberated background layer, including some impossibly low, barely audible frequencies. The novelty of the soundworld made it interesting to me, though it didn't develop so much as it descended into a really nasty sounding field of grains. [ 5.9/10 ]

Stereo is King (2011)
Mason Bates' première called for 3 percussionists accompanied by an electronic track on tape. There didn't seem to be any interaction between the performers on stage click-tracked to the computer in the hall. 
Bates' music continues to be a concatenation of sections, each of which showing signs of development, signs of connection but are ultimately lacking. It's pretty sectional: sections morph into something new and then come back later mostly unchanged. To my ears, he's exploring interesting sonic territory but not building interesting buildings in that territory. 
[ 6.2/10 ]
[I do wish he would give up on Lydian. Listen to Mothership on Youtube and hear for yourself.]

Graal thèâtre (1994)
Listening to Kaija Saariaho's masterpiece, I realized that she does things in Graal thèâtre that I miss in every other contemporary composition. Her technique of orchestration results in a tightly woven tapestry--not a patchwork quilt--where timbres bleed into one another, resulting in constantly changing amorphous texture that is always either beautiful or interesting--sometimes both. Yuan-Qing Yu was the violin soloist, stoically mastering Saariaho's fluid runs and virtuosic passages. Her tone was beautiful but maybe didn't dig deep enough into the ugly growls Saariaho asks for.
The piece, however, is a modern-day classic: [ 9.5/10 ]
The concert started slow but then got better and better. A successful concert to end a successful season.

Filed under: CSO, musicnow

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