New Music in a Blizzard: MusicNOW

The forecast: high of 12, low of 5. Fahrenheit.

That’s damn cold for anyone, let alone someone used to California.

But no matter, this was December in Chicago, where six hundred new-music braved the cold to experience the second MusicNOW concert at the Harris Theater. With composer Anna Clyne, I curate this wonderful concert series offered by the Chicago Symphony, and we have been deeply touched at the large and diverse crowds that have been attending these shows over the past several months.

This concert featured featured several pieces informed by jazz and improvisation, beginning with Edmund Campion’s striking Corail for solo sax and electronics. The player improvises within a electronic ‘musical ecosystem’ created by the composer. Jim Galliatoroa’s melodies, riffs, and sound effects were picked up by the electronics and thrown around the massive space, surrounding the listener in a beautiful, morphing web of sound.

Corail asks for the player to perform from the audience, and we used Harris Theater’s rich lighting and stagecraft capabilities to emphasize this dramatic concert opener. The curtain was down, the house was completely dark, and Jim moved from one surreal pool of light to another. His journey was from the audience to the stage, to which he ascended in the final minutes of the piece.

And then the curtain went up.

One sax player suddenly became a big band, with conductor Cliff Colnut at the helm, performing Derek Bermel’s inventively jazzy Three Rivers. Passages of straight-up swing collide with Zappa-esque skittishness and color. Most striking to me is Derek’s ability to process a diversity of influences through his highly distinctive compositional voice.

The next two pieces created a kind of yin-and-yang sensation. Paola Prestini’s lyrically ambient Spell and Jason Eckardt’s Tangled Loops inhabit opposite ends of the musical universe, and hearing them side-by-side put both in greater relief. Paola’s piece truly cast a spell over the listener, with subtle harmonic shifts, gorgeous melodies, and delicate textures. This is a space not often explored on contemporary music concerts, and it seemed the perfect emotional center to the program.

Then Tangled Loops arrived, with its hair-on-fire virtuosity required of both saxophonist and pianist, and the spell was indeed broken. Thrilling, lighting-fast passages suggested Eric Dolphy in fast-forward, a tour-de-force of post-serial rigor and rhythmic inventiveness.
The final piece, Steven Mackey’s Micro-Concerto, turned the traditional concerto on its head. The house band of new-music concerts, the Pierrot ensemble, is transformed into a mini-orchestra accompanying a solo percussionist. It’s an ingenious idea for a piece that is superbly realized, with the soloist moving through all manner instruments over the twenty-minute duration of the piece. Cynthia Yeh, who has become my percussion muse, simply tore the piece apart.

So how can we follow this act?

How about the legendary German electronica duo Mouse on Mars performing alongside Chicago Symphony musicians? No matter that it’s next month, when the temperature will still be worthy of Little Match Girl reenactments. This is Chicago: hearty souls and curious minds.