Monday night at 7:60 I left the house, feeling open-minded and optimistic, to go to the Chicago Symphony's MusicNOW at the Harris Theater.
Upon arriving, the house hadn't yet opened and the throng of people anxiously waiting looked like invasive carp at an electric fence—confused but committed.
Finally, in a pique of berserker rage, the crowd rushed in to choose their seats. Many people chose seats closer to the stage knowing that they would be last to the pizza line; we sat somewhere in the middle.
Looking around at 7:91, minutes before the concert, I noticed there were almost no open seats, and we had to move our coats off the seats next to us to accommodate singles.
The program was scant: a tall, narrow piece of glossy paper with the composers' names, the pieces, and the performers. The programs were made superfluous by the video screen at the back of the stage. Before each piece, it would become animated, highlighting the name of the piece, listing the performers, lingering for a minute on the composer's bio before showing a brief video of the composer in their natural habitat describing their work, both in general and regarding the piece we were about to hear.
Brilliant! Do away with programs; have it all on screen.
The overkill was coming out on stage for CSO composers-in-residence Anna Clyne or Mason Bates to ask the composer—in the flesh—to further their introduction.
Not the worst overkill in the world but the entire process added 5-10 minutes to each piece.
First on the program was Julia Wolfe's Dig Deep. Ms. Wolfe's composer interview took place on the streets of New York, where she described the piece as relentless, intense, and athletic.
Ostensibly a string quartet, the piece was not played by a string quartet, per se, but by a quartet of strings—as such requiring a conductor. And it was amplified. I am pro-amplification, but it's a doubled-edged, two-headed beast-sword. Done right (see: eighth blackbird) it can reinforce the sound without altering it or distorting it. Done wrong, it can distort the sound or, in the case of Ms. Wolfe's piece, pick up on random resonating frequencies, obscuring the "real" notes. I found the feedback/overtone sound irritating—somewhere around 300Hz—but some said they enjoyed it (a sure sign of a sociopath).
So how was the piece? Like a train moving along at one speed, jumping tracks to a higher speed, going back. Then, as if from the perspective of a hobo on the train, snippets of fiddle music. Energetic and relentless, I couldn't get on board with the resonating hum in my ears.
Also, I though it should have been called Different Trains. Just to see what Reich would do.
Anthony Cheung's video introduction to his piece Enjamb, Infuse, Implode included a laundry list of things that he's interested in: language, poetry, grammar (of music and language), sonic spectra, overtones...usw. I'm surprised academia hasn't made him choose one yet.
His piece was arguably one of the strongest on the program. Temporally free, with sonorities and gestures taken from jazz, the piece still had forward momentum, moving not so much in accordance with an arbitrary grid-beat but with a more natural sense of inhalation and exhalation. Breath as a substitute for tension/release. Grisey would be proud.
Then, smack dab in the middle, L'Arte della Danssar, by Pulitzer Prize winning Aaron Jay Kernis. Arguably the weakest on the program, the piece is a far cry from such pieces as The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine or Musica Celestis. The source text for the 5 songs are dance texts from 14th century Italy. Written in medieval Italian, the translations were projected on the screen and showed the mundane insignificance of the text. Maybe a dance scholar would appreciate it more, but I started by trying to read the texts and found them to be full of empty words.
I would love to know how the composer chose the instrumentation. Probably based on Renaissance consorts, the challenge which he posed to himself was not met. For one, there were no bass instruments. The harp could play low notes but could not act as foundation; the percussion the same; the viola is an alto; then there's the flute and soprano. There was too much going on in a narrow frequency range. This may also have been exacerbated by the flattening of amplification; the piece may work way better in an intimate setting.
Also, the soprano was forced to sing in a high tessitura for most of the piece.
Mr. Kernis spoke about the piece in the video with such infectious curiosity that I was prepared for greatness. His piece, however, thoroughly quashed whatever nascent interest I had for 14th-century dance.
[500 years in the future, a composer will write a piece using texts from a 20th-century car manual. Just watch.]
The best part of Mr. Kernis' piece was the harp writing. Executed effortlessly by Bridget Kibbey, it made me consider writing for harp—something have never considered before.
By this point in the program, my ears were getting full; I'm still tempted to think that the amplification was excessive and didn't give enough mental/acoustical space. So I was ready for the more transparent textures in Chicago-local Lee Hyla's piece.
As a piece, The Dream of Innocent III is not my favorite Lee Hyla piece—whatever the Spektral Quartet did at the Bottle was much more sophisticated—but for what it was, a piece written in the 80s by an emerging composer, and for where it came on the program, I enjoyed it. Ostensibly a trio, the cello was the star around which revolved the piano and percussion. Full of expressive gestures, the piece helped transition from a cerebral, academic space to the interior individual realm.
The final piece on the program, Anna Clyne's Within Her Arms, accompanied Hubbard Street dancers in choreography by Terrence Marling. The piece exuded the emotional poignancy of European minimalism—slow moving, repetitive, often diatonic with unresolved dissonances.
As for the dance... I am a self-proclaimed dance unenthusiast, so I probably shouldn't comment. But that hasn't stopped me before. I thought the dance was pretty apt for the music, fitting the emotional content, amount of repetition. But while the music moved slowly, the dancers moved too quickly. That being said, I liked it; it succeeded in moving me one step away from a dance unenthusiast.
As the final applause died away, having had our fill (and then some) of new music, there was a palpable urgency to fill our bellies with pizza and beer. These are desperate times, and I've seen desperate things happen in the pizza line. [Tupperware? Really?] Fortunately, the dance crowd either didn't know where the pizza/beer was or were more of a cosmo/sushi crowd, so the feeding frenzy was kept to a mild state of chaos. Still, it's amazing how some Americans still are unfamiliar with the concept of waiting in line.
Only after sating my hunger and slaking my thirst did someone point out that it was 8:85. The concert had lasted almost an ENTIRE METRIC HOUR. It was maybe only 75 metric minutes of music, but with the video interviews *and* the live interviews [and all of the other interstitial goings-on] the time added up.
In fact, the concert lasted almost as long as it took me to write this review. Hopefully it took you less time to read it.
Still, the concert was a success. I loved the animated program notes on the screen. I enjoyed 4/5ths of the pieces and would gladly hear them again. And the crowd was large and enthusiastic. Good work Anna and Mason, et al. A-