MusicNOW Hits Its Stride

December 15, 2011 | By Wynne Delacoma
CHICAGO -- MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary chamber music series, gets richer with each performance.

Overseen since last season by the CSO’s composers-in- residence, Anna Clyne and Mason Bates, MusicNOW has acquired a hipness quotient that could be one reason why it is drawing new, younger audiences in addition to older listeners. Presented downtown in the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, the concerts usually include visual elements. DJs regularly preside over the pre-concert music and the post- concert receptions that include free pizza in the theater’s fashionably rough-hewn lobbies.

But hip has not meant lack of depth. The Dec. 12 concert, which closed with a compelling collaboration with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, offered an exceptionally stimulating range of music. There were pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis and Lee Hyla inspired by 15th-century dance and 14th-century visual art respectively. Julia Wolfe’s “Dig Deep,” a raw-boned piece from 1995 for string quartet, and Anthony Cheung’s much more delicate “Enjamb, Infuse, Implode” from 2006 were studies in vastly contrasting moods. And Hubbard Street choreographer Terence Marling created movement that fully explored the emotional shadows in Clyne’s lyrical “Within Her Arms.”

Since 2004, Hubbard Street, Chicago’s leading modern dance troupe, has turned up every season with the entire CSO at its Symphony Center home. The programs, ranging from dances set to Bach conducted by Pinchas Zukerman to works by Bernstein and Mason Bates, are hot tickets and usually pack the house with both CSO and Hubbard Street fans. Monday’s concert, however, was the dance troupe’s first outing with MusicNOW. It was a very good fit, a thoughtful pairing of seven dancers and 15-piece string orchestra conducted by Cristian Macelaru, assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In comments to the audience, Clyne explained that she began composing “Within Her Arms” in 2008 the day after her mother died. (Its world premiere, in 2009, was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen during one of his final concerts as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director.) Clyne collaborates regularly with dancers and dance companies, although in this case, the 13-minute piece had been completed before Marling started his choreographic work.

Its generally quiet grief, eloquently performed by the musicians clustered on the left side of the stage, most of them standing, clearly spoke to him. There was a sense of spiritual strength in the dancers, the four women wearing long, gauzy white skirts, the men bare-chested in white calf- length pants.

Yes, desperation tinged their quick, halting runs and deep, off-center lunges. But as the women fell softly against a partner’s outstretched arm, they quickly found their equilibrium again. We sensed a profoundly sympathetic bond among the dancers, though without clinging swoons, or tight clinches. After a quick, open-legged lift or a swirling turn, partners repeatedly darted away from each other and stood alone. It was as if their brief contact, bright with extended, flashing limbs, momentarily sparked a reservoir of dormant energy, a reminder of their own resilience. The choreography was an elegant match for Clyne’s score, with its dark rumble of cellos and basses beneath violins and violas tinged with haunting Renaissance-era harmonies.

Dance was also on Kernis’ mind in his “L’Arte della Danssar” (“The Art of the Dance”), written for soprano (Carrie Henneman Shaw), flute, viola, harp and percussion. A setting of four excerpts from a 14th-century book of treatises about dance, it had its premiere earlier this year in Philadelphia. Shaw brought a clear, often luminously pure tone to Kernis’ high, frequently florid melodies, and the musicians provided buoyant accompaniment. Too bad that the long texts, projected on a large screen behind the players, appeared and disappeared at odd moments and were difficult to read.

A quartet of CSO players -- violinists Yuan-Qing Yu and Susan Synnestvedt, violist Catherine Brubaker and cellist Kenneth Olsen -- hurled themselves into Wolfe’s high-speed “Dig Deep.” But the relentless rhythmic drive and savagely harsh melodic outbursts eventually grated on the nerves.

Olsen, who appeared in four of the evening’s five pieces, was the compelling center of gravity in Lee Hyla’s “The Dream of Innocent III,” composed in 1987. Written for cello, piano and percussion by a Chicago-based composer whose music reflects his love of jazz, rock and classical music, it was inspired by—of all unlikely things—Giotto’s 13th-century fresco featuring St. Francis of Assisi and Pope Innocent III. Olsen’s lyrical cello line was strongly carved, forging ahead amid a background of furious outbursts from Cynthia Yeh’s drums and glowing, austere utterances from Amy Briggs’s piano.

MusicNOW concerts have their small irritations. Projecting the program notes rather than providing printed programs is admirably green, but the type is difficult to read from even a few rows back. This was especially a problem with the text for Kernis’ four songs. Videos of the composers talking about their work, shot in grainy black and white with scratchy audio, seemed self-consciously arty. But these are minor matters. MusicNOW is no longer a good idea in search of an audience. That ever-elusive audience seems to have been found.



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