Chicago Composers Orchestra Amidst Lush Plantlife

Like a hothouse for growing composers, the Chicago Composers Orchestra gives orchestral composers a rare opportunity to have their works performed, all while exposing audiences to new works—in short, filling a void in the Chicago music scene.

On Wednesday, the 40-some-odd-person group ventured to the west side to perform 5 world premieres at the Garfield Park Conservatory. [If you recall the Spring hail storm that destroyed much of the conservatory's glass, you might be surprised to know that they are still deeply entrenched in the rebuilding process.]

Alternative venues are the rage these days—the Spektral Quartet playing at the Empty Bottle, the Chicago Symphony playing at a neighborhood church—with varying degrees of [musical] success, but the conservatory proved a lush, acoustically sound venue, almost mimicking an outdoor concert.

That being said, the concert started in the Palm Room, where I though the noise from the overhead fans overpowered the subtle noises from the performers, spatialized in 4 groups. As it turns out, the fans were part and parcel of Kyle Vegter's soundmass composition minus/plus, providing the background radiation from which the acoustic sounds could emerge. After a couple minutes, I could clearly tell that the orchestra was playing, competing with the fans, and at ~7 minutes, the instruments were clearly winning. Booming bass drum hits, tuba, and frenetic string licks gave the impression that the droning fans-cum-insects had given way to a proper rainforest rainstorm.

Then we progressed. The audience and performers alike moseyed down a narrow path through one of the under-construction rooms to the Horticulture room for the rest of the concert.

This was the formal start of the concert, including ovations for the concertmaster et al. The Horticulture room proved much more conducive to careful listening. From this less apparent background noise, the gossamer opening threads of Francisco Casillo Trigueros' Altra emerged and had no trouble dominating. An adept orchestrator, Mr. Trigueros drew upon a wide variety of shifting colors and textures in a slowly-unfolding process, which would give way to angular melodic fragments.

Smack in the middle of the program, the "Hump Piece" if you will, was John Dorhauer's Synechdoche, a multi-part work engaged in the exploration of the age-old philosophical question: "What makes us like a certain piece of music?" This discussion dates back at least to Plato who said that we should not listen to music based on what we like (what an American concept!) but rather based on how it affects our character. Schopenhauer said that music is the most pure expression of Will itself, an analog for the true nature of reality. As our consciousness is subsumed into the music, we forget about the world as representation and transcend suffering.

Mr. Dorhauer went down the path extending forth from Schopenhauer as it approaches and continues through post-modernism: there is no Will, only representation. As such, his piece included hazy recollections of tunes, direct quotations, and unanswered questions. The 10 distinct sections abut like bricks in a brick wall, held together by the mortar of forward progression: less stasis, more movement. As a recovering post-modernist, I would have rather more answers and more cohesiveness—or possibly better questions.

Another 10-part work followed: local Jazz fluist/composer Nicole Mitchell's Flight for Freedom. Not knowing great details about Harriet Tubman's life story, I was unable to assess how well Flight acted as a soundtrack to her life. Simply as music, it worked fairly well.

Ms. Mitchell performed alongside the orchestra like in a concerto, even including a brief but virtuosic cadenza. And, like in a concerto, there were moments of competition between the orchestra and soloist, but generally the two forces complemented each other nicely through skillful orchestration and through the direction of Matthew Kasper. The piece also pitted jazz against classical, rhythmic drive against the freedom of improvisation, and managed to achieve a believable amount of balance.

Concluding the program was Glaze by Lou Mallozzi, Experimental Sound Studio's fearless leader. The orchestra musicians put down their instruments, some picking up singing wine glasses, others treading on broken glass, all of which representing the hail damage that the conservatory received in the spring. The piece started with wine glasses, a gentle warbling of conflicting sine waves, which were relegated to the background of the crunching sound of the barefoot performers walking on broken glass. They were probably wearing shoes, but not being able to see their feet, I preferred imagining them suffer for art.

A diverse program in a non-traditional space, the evening attracted a diverse crowd, who responded enthusiastically to the committed performance of the orchestra. A success. May the Chicago Composers Orchestra continue their bold mission to "create a sense of excitement around contemporary orchestral music".

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