At MCA Chicago, music tempts

At MCA Chicago, music tempts
Fifth House Ensemble © MCA Chicago

Faith, it seems, can't exist without temptation. The serpent seduces Eve with the promise of omniscience; the devil tests Jesus in the wilderness; and entrapment is also central to many Buddhist narratives. Without the presentation of dangerous blunders disguised as luscious alternatives, everyone would be a saint, which is to say there would be no saints.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Saint Anthony was tempted, and the nature of the temptations appear to have been in line with the saint's superhuman endurance for such entrapment.

To Hieronymus Bosch, Anthony has to endure nothing less than a behemoth that resembles a shell-less turtle with bizarre headgear, quasi-human figures (with elephant trunks for tails) pouring out his water, a marlin with monkey feet wearing a castle and about to whack a boar with a sledgehammer, a drowning man with bulging eyes and an awfully long fingernail, and a mysterious little figure about to shoot a plunger or trumpet at him with a bow.

The performance of John Zorn's The Temptations of St. Anthony (2012) by the Fifth House Ensemble at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as part of the March 9 event "Caught: The Wide Open" brilliantly suggests the advancing and parrying that one might expect of the saint's temptations. The nine-minute piece is for flute, English horn, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and piano.

"John casts the piano as St. Anthony, with the rest of the ensemble serving as a swirl of fantastical demons determined to test his faith," flutist Melissa Snoza, executive director of the ensemble, writes in the program notes.

The other two works performed at the March 9 event -- Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 9 (24 minutes, 1964) and Caleb Burhans' Excelsior (30 minutes, 2012) -- also touch on the theme of escape.

Shostakovich's piece was set to an animated narrative by Chicago artist Adam Fotos, in which an artist climbs into his piano and descends into a netherworld (complete with a river Styx) worthy of Homer. (See an example of one of Fotos' great drawings on his website.) The protagonist, who flees a Soviet-styled regime (which plagued Shostakovich) as well as some frightening rats, expresses his frustration about censorship at one point with the great line: "Where is the treason in a string of notes?"

There's a different kind of descent in Excelsior, which is based on Joseph Kittinger's 1960 record-setting 19-mile sky dive. Stunning video footage -- all the more unsettling and sober due to its graininess -- accompanied the music.

Filed under: Christianity, MCA Chicago

Tags: Adam and Eve, Eden

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