Contempo’s program of American music finds a solace amid the dissonance

January 09, 2011
By Wynne Delacoma

I’ll take my good omens where I can find them, and Sunday afternoon’s Contempo concert at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall was as good an omen as any for Chicago’s 2011 classical music season.

Though wind chills were in the single digits and the musical fare was an uncompromising contemporary mix of George Crumb, Ralph Shapey, Shulamit Ran and Stephen Montague, the 185-seat Ganz Hall was virtually full.

Some of Chicago’s leading musicians—the Pacifica Quartet, members of eighth blackbird and the gifted mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley—were onstage for this concert in a series sponsored by University of Chicago Presents. The music, even Shapey’s jagged Evocations No. 3 for viola and piano, was lushly expressive, and the audience was as intensely engaged as the performers. An auspicious start to a new musical year.

The concert was titled Lyre of Orpheus, an apt nod to the other-worldly atmosphere that suffused all four works, ranging from Crumb’s hallucinatory Night of the Four Moons from 1969 to Ran’s 2008 lyrical mediation for string quartet, viola and cello that provided the program’s title.

Many music-lovers cringe at the thought of contemporary works, anticipating nerve-shattering decibel levels and incomprehensible, jangling dissonance. There was dissonance aplenty Sunday afternoon, from the hushed, unsettling rasp of bow on viola strings in Montague’s String Quartet to the crashing piano chords of Shapey’s Evocation. But none of it was gratuitous or overdone in these pieces by four American composers. A lyrical, even meditative strain anchored each piece. These are modern times, the composers seemed to be saying, and we cannot reflect them using only the devices of Mozart and Beethoven.

Ran, who has never hesitated to confront listeners with headstrong dissonance, was equally assertive in the lustrous, singing lines of Lyre of Orpheus. As the featured soloist in the sextet, Brandon Vamos, the Pacifica Quartet’s cellist, played his dark, brooding solos with passionate fervor. Set against his wandering melodies, the other players often set up a tense, expectant accompaniment. At times the piece exploded into nervous frenzy.

Montague’s String Quartet from 1989-93, a tribute to two composer friends who died in tragic circumstances, included taped and electronic elements. Rather than sounding like high-tech gimmicks, they created a haunted, luminous atmosphere that seamlessly blended with the Pacifica’s driven forays. The music ranged from merry but haunted dances to a blend of electronics and high-speed fiddling that sounded like a flock of high-strung, steel-winged hummingbirds.

Pianist Lisa Kaplan and violist Matt Albert, both of eighth blackbird, were attentive partners in Shapey’s Evocation No. 3, confidently navigating its unpredictable shifts in mood.

Alternating between dramatic, whispered speech and urgent, leaping vocal lines, Bentley was a mesmerizing presence in Crumb’s Night of the Four Moons. Crumb composed this work in the summer of 1969 as Apollo 11 astronauts were walking on the moon. Backed by Jesse Langen on banjo and eighth blackbird members flutist Tim Monro, electric cellist Nicholas Photinos, and percussionist Matthew Duvall, Bentley eloquently conveyed Crumb’s atmosphere of awe and foreboding.

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