Hundreds of people packed the Mayne Stage on Thursday to witness ensemble dal niente the Chicago Premiere of Fausto Romitelli's "Professor Bad Trip", a 3-movement imagination of a bad acid trip.
People were turned on, tuned in, and only dropped out after an extended standing "O" with hoots and hollers from the balcony, many staying afterward to drink and chat with the ensemble still high on life after an electric performance.
dal niente is more typically known for the piece that started the program, Donatoni's About (1975), a piece that explores texture, timbre, and the mutual evolutions thereof. A rhythmic regularity in the guitar In lesser hands, these explorations often fall flat, but Donatoni's work kept forward momentum throughout, benefiting from more experimental works and then going further. (8.2 / 10)
What followed was mostly a Trip with interstitial Gesulado, like aural sorbet between each "lesson". The 3 madrigals were arranged by 2 different local "favorites" of the ensemble and used instruments from the Trip. The first, arranged by Fred Gifford, used only the guitar with various effects, distortion, phaser, wah. The result was the weakest part of the program, and, after turned on by About, I started to drop out. Whether it was the low volume, the awkward pauses between different guitar effects, or the languorous tempo (in stark contrast to the busy About), the piece didn't fill up the space - in the room or in my head.
Thus began the Trip. Quickly, the texture densified as each performer played more and more virtuosic material (without any hope of being heard). Electronics emerged from underneath the ensemble, providing a base/bass in support of the cacophony. A good start to a bad trip, perfectly overwhelming. (7.0 / 10)
Then, a break. Then some more Gesulado, this time for a more full ensemble, more closely resembling a medieval consort. This one, thankfully, made the individual lines more apparent. Counterpoint FTW. Then back to the Trip.
The second lesson had much more space, like the audience had made it across the wall of sound and were now exploring a distorted and unsettling landscape. Still cacophonous - not quite as hyper-complex as the first lesson - the 2nd lesson had more moments of quiet introspection, taking you to the edge and then letting your imagination run wild in the void. Partway through, cellist Russel Rolen brought the audience even further beyond with an electric cello solo that had everyone in the room - ensemble members included - visibly agape. Expert use of the wah pedal.
The third installation of Gesualdo had the most orchestrational intrigue. Chris Fisher-Lochhead employed a wide variety of contemporary techniques, tastefully and masterfully, blending timbres and effects into a complete whole.
The final lesson of the Bad Trip managed to go further still, and, like a good (bad) trip, the specifics get a little fuzzy with time. Fortunately, I found the video on Youtube.
Assessment: A rip-roaring success, Professor Bad Trip takes a variety of contemporary languages and astutely combines them in service of a (sort of) program. Program music was passé for a while as composers mined poetry for obscure titles, but it seems like it's making a comeback. Not that PBT follows a program like Scheherazade - or even La Mer - but gives the listener a simple direction in which to imagine. It's not apt to please hardcore abstractionists (academics) but lowers the barrier to entry to the Slightly Above-Average Joe.
But, without an ensemble of the quality of dal niente, the piece would collapse under its own pompous weight. The entire ensemble threw off virtuosic licks like they were nothing, albeit all at the same time. As difficult as it is to play together, it's even harder to play apart together, which dal niente did with ease.
Here's to them performing it again in Chicago: maybe 1 lesson per concert as an encore? If we are so lucky, I'd like to see a rethinking of the relationship between the electric guitar and the ensemble, one that is always fraught with peril. Aside from that, a stellar concert.
As a piece, let's say 8.7 / 10. Listenable many times over without a single boring moment. NEVER BE BORING!