Tuesday, March 16, 2010

now and then

Monday, March 15 2010
John Luther Adams, Qilyaun
Osvaldo Golijov, K'vakarat from The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind
JLA, For Jim (rising)
Michael Ward-Bergeman, Patagonia (arr. Golijov)
JLA, ...and bells remembered
Golijov, Tekyah

This was a bittersweet performance for me, the final MusicNOW concert of the season and the last I will attend for quite some time. I have always felt bad about not seeing more of the MusicNOW series, since they represent the best and smartest of what the CSO has to offer: new music, intelligently programmed and casually presented with free food and booze to follow. I hope the New York Philharmonic takes a good look at this model for CONTACT! which is not yet the series it should be.

Deborah Card opened the evening with a salute to departing composers-in-residence Osvaldo Golijov and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Though I'm a fan of their music and their well-curated concerts, I'm not exactly sad to see them go. The two are pretty much the definition of jet-setting composers, a bit too famous to devote significant focus to something as important as the Chicago new music scene; there was never a sense that either was embedded in the city's musical fabric.

In his remarks, Golijov spoke of the ritual nature of his last MusicNOW: the works were to be performed without applause in-between, creating a kind of “strange Mass without religion.” Gerald McBurney, his interviewer, acknowledged that the lack of applause was a form of audience participation in itself, reminding me of Alex's comments at the Royal Philharmonic Society from a week ago.

Of the six works on the program, the best were the bookends: John Luther Adams' Qilyaun for four bass drums and Osvaldo Golijov's Tekyah for clarinet, hyper-accordion, and a small ensemble of brass/shofars. Qilyaun, like the best of JLA's works, draws on the primal sounds of the Alaskan wilderness. Each of the drums was placed in a different corner of the theater, emphasizing spatial rumblings and gradual dynamic waves. JLA immersed the audience in a chamber of sound, completely surrounded by the intense drumming: gradually loudening and softening, accelerating and decelerating, the drums gave off a sense of natural progression, like the slow lurching of tectonic plates or wind whooshing through a mountain pass. The four CSO percussionists (Cynthia Yeh, Vadim Karpinos, Rhett Del Campo, Ryan Kahlbaugh) gave the music a visceral, virtuosic performance with delicately paced dynamics. When the fifteen minute score finally died away, there was an eerie lack of sound in the room; the drumming had become completely internalized, so its absence was startling.

Where the ritualistic elements of Qilyaun are those of a shamanistic, primordial religion (not to over-exoticize Adams), the spirituality of Tekyah is based in Golijov's quasi-Argentinean interpretation of Judaism. J. Lawrie Bloom's clarinet sang in a cantorial style, acting as the leader of a congregation of brass and shofars. The work opened with a keening clarinet lament, backed by the weird electro-acoustics of the hyper-accordian and brass. Glissandi morphed the accompaniment texture, blending together the brass and accordian into a mass of sound. Finally a shofar from the audience (echoing the spatial elements of Qilyaun) broke through the texture, and a call-and-response rhythm emerged between clarinet and shofar. The brass section (including my man Kris Westrich, making his CSO debut) switched to shofars and joined into the choir. Golijov based each rhythmic pattern on the shofar calls of the Rosh Hashanah service--Tekiyah, Teruah, Shevarim--with the clarinet playing the "word" and the shofars blowing their response. Unfortunately it ended too quickly, the short length making it less like a religious rite and more like a fanfare.

Four less successful pieces came between these two. The two other JLA works, For Jim (rising) for six players (3 trumpets, 3 trombones) and ...and bells remembered... were too brief, forsaking the meditative serenity which JLA usually does so successfully in pieces like Red Arc/Blue Veil and Dream in White on White. In For Jim, the brass begin with a series of harmonic fundamentals, evoking the heroic opening to Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. But the Teutonic sound quickly dissolves as JLA experiments with filling in the spaces between these fundamentals, playing with the cracks between the notes in the manner of his mentor James Tenney (to whom the work is dedicated). ...and bells remembered... establishes a relationship between sound and silence, with an opening trade-off of chimes and vibraphone, creating small clouds of sound. Other soft percussive instruments enter, adding pulsing, shifting timbres to the textures, which slowly evaporate into the air. It ends poignantly with alternating single tones in vibraphone and crotales, reminisces of the initial dialogue. As a wistful exercise in color, it worked well, but could have been significantly longer to establish a better sense of atmosphere. The CSO percussionists played with remarkable clarity and balance, drawing my ears to the variety of color combinations within the small group of instruments.

Though excellently performed, Golijov's K'vakarat from The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind and Michael Ward-Bergeman's Patagonia were the real weak links in the program. It was a mistake to excerpt the final movement from Golijov's passionate quintet for strings and clarinet. The slowly unfolding, rhapsodic clarinet lines, with twitchy strings providing accompaniment, anticipated the Cantor of Tekyah (the piece was originally composed for cantor Mischa Alexandrovich and the Kronos Quartet). But it sounded too similar to Ward-Bergeman's work, which featured similarly effect-based string writing against Ward-Bergemann's hyper-accordion. The hyper-accordion has much potential, but his dreamy, sometimes-cheesy performance sounded too much like a Super Nintendo game. And both pieces had absolutely terrible endings, where the long melodies of the clarinet and hyper-accordion came to abrupt stops.

Despite only two really successful pieces on the program, the performance came across very well as a whole, with well-timed transitions between works. As the stage filled with more musicians, it became like a musical ritual, despite the enormous differences between JLA's and Golijov's styles. As a send-off for Golijov and Turnage, the evening fulfilled their wish of concert as ritual, a worship service praising the religion of (new) music. And like all great Chicago rituals, it was immediately followed by pizza and booze.


  1. great concert! my only beef with this post is that of the four percussionists in Quilyaun, only two are in the CSO. Cynthia and Vadim are CSO members, the others are subs and aren't as cool, as they were the ones placed in the back.

  2. Yeah I know. But aren't they considered CSO percussionists if they're subs playing in a CSO concert? Not sure what the technical protocol is, but duly noted.

  3. Nice piece, Mr. Billy!

    Protocol: In a U.S. professional orchestra only full-time members of that orchestra are members -- not subs, not folks in extra concerts, etc. So Becca is right that only Cynthia and Vadim were "CSO percussionists." And as this was *not* a CSO concert,but a CSO MusicNOW show, yr main man Kris will have to wait to make his own CSO debut, but surely he will, sooner rather than later!

    Now he and the two additional percussionists do get a nice legitimate line for their c.v.'s: As with a number of other orchestra, the CSO has chosen to give a name to its separate new music series forces, in this case, the "CSO MusicNOW Ensemble." So all of these folks can say that they played with that entity -- because they did! ;-)

    (Oh, and the W-B work sounded like the Golijov because it was orchestrated/instrumentated by Golijov. ;-) )