DePaul University Concert Hall

May 17

In the past decade or so the label “crossover” has been used with gleeful indiscrimination by concert promoters. But what is a crossover artist? Strictly speaking, he’s a performer or composer who ventures out of the domain in which he’s made his reputation into one where he lacks credentials. Such explorations are laudable, but let’s face it, the great majority aren’t successful. Yet music marketers and concert-hall managers go on using the term to lure additional customers to the record store and box office.

Increasingly prevalent are attempted crossings between “serious” and pop music, two traditions that seem far apart aesthetically and culturally. Lately we’ve seen Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo lending their radiant voices to Broadway tunes, and making a mint in the process. And how does one explain the odd collaboration between Yo Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin? More of these joint ventures are promised–a clear change for star classical performers, though most of them were used to moonlighting as studio musicians so long as they remained anonymous. The reverse traffic is just as busy, as more and more pop composers covet the cachet usually reserved for serious composers. How else does one account for the spate of pseudo operas foisted on us by Stewart Copeland, David Byrne, and others? Or Paul McCartney’s agitprop oratorio, a rather embarrassing attempt to outdo Andrew Lloyd Webber, a trailblazer in the chase after respectability?

About the only sensible, and safe, crossings have been between jazz and classical music. The distance is admittedly far shorter, since the two are practically regarded as sister arts by their practitioners. But the chances of good music making are also much greater. Benny Goodman, whose virtuosity and self-confidence won him the supreme compliment of classical composers such as Bela Bartok writing for him, was arguably the first true crossover musician. There have been many wannabes since his time, but only a few are worthy successors. Jazz clarinetist Eddie Daniels may be one (the CSO’s clarinet whizzes Larry Combs and John Bruce Yeh are two more). Daniels was in town two weeks ago for a pair of gigs sponsored by Chamber Music Chicago–one jazz, with pianist Mike Garson, and the other classical, with the Vermeer Quartet.

Daniels has been a jazzman for almost 30 years, beginning as tenor saxophonist with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band. But he was trained in the classical repertoire and graduated from the Juilliard with a master’s. I assume he still jams with his classical colleagues in his spare time. Certainly some of his recent fusion albums indicate that he’s chosen to follow in Goodman’s steps.

Is he as good? Daniels’s crossover vehicle was Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B-flat Major, op. 34. When Weber composed this quintet–for his friend Heinrich Baermann, a distinguished court virtuoso–he must have had Mozart’s great quintet in mind. Like Mozart, a relative by marriage, he loved the sound of the clarinet and used it to accompany sopranos in his operas. But though almost equally productive in his short life, he was no Mozart. The quintet–really a concertante, given the way the clarinet is featured–shows a meticulous craftsman at work, but it has neither the impeccable logic nor the serene sublimity of its predecessor. The overall mood is sylvan and gay, especially the rondo finale. Many of the clarinet passages–and the cadenzas–are brilliant, showy, and tricky to play. Daniels’s performance was straightforward–not as graceful and artful as a veteran classical clarinetist like Robert Marcellus might have made it–and a couple of shrill miscues betrayed some less-than-perfect control. Daniels’s partners–Shmuel Ashkenasi and Pierre Menard (violins), Richard Young (viola), Marc Johnson (cello)–were sharper in their playing, neatly conveying the melodious nature of the quintet. Daniels will need to improve his technique and understanding of the classical style before his name can be mentioned in the same breath as Goodman’s.

The concert opened with the Vermeer playing one of Boccherini’s 91 made-to-order string quartets. A contemporary of Haydn’s who achieved fame as a cellist, Boccherini was an excellent melodist and colorist–two reasons he was hired by Frederick William II of Prussia to serve as an absentee court composer while he lived in Spain. My first introduction to Boccherini was the minuet from the E-major quintet played by Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers. Its otherworldly elegance also pervades the quartet, and the sprightly finale is a delight. Except for some ungainly intonation in the first movement, the Vermeer brought out the genteel beauty and simple jocosity in this music.

In contrast, Elliott Carter’s String Quartet no. 1 (1951) is unrelentingly somber and complex. Rejecting the symmetries of neoclassicism, he put the four instruments in pursuit of their own ideas, each with its own peculiar rhythmic and melodic patterns–though they occasionally seem to acknowledge each other’s presence. At times the lines pile on top of one another, creating a thicker texture. Carter also plays with audience expectations–major pauses are inserted within the middle two movements rather than between them. The intense, austere, high-strung mood is established right away. In the second movement (“Fantasia: Adagio”) the violins ruminate broodingly while their deeper-pitched companions commiserate. The fierce determination of the third movement is resolved uneasily, setting the stage for the fastpaced finale. The Vermeer’s performance was clear and absorbing–no mean feat given the piece’s difficulty and stubborn intellectualism.


Southend Musicworks

May 23

Ciosoni calls itself a contemporary chamber trio. It has no boundaries to cross, since new music is almost by definition the frontier beyond the boundaries. Last weekend the downstate ensemble offered concerts on consecutive nights at Southend Musicworks, a hospitable venue for crossovers.

Eric Mandat (clarinets), Tim Lane (flutes), and Michael Cameron (double bass) began the Saturday concert in a dramatic fashion, standing in different parts of the room for Frederic Rzewski’s 13 Studies for Instruments (1977). Slowly the instruments responded to each other in an exploration of sonorities, their baleful, sotto voce utterances echoing in a forlorn dirge. After about ten minutes the musicians regrouped onstage and continued the mood of quiet desperation. In a later movement the terse phrases became repetitive, varying almost imperceptibly. The instruments dropped in and out in rotation, then went their separate ways before finally dissolving into one chord that lingered. The effect was mesmerizing.

The 1963 Duo for Flute and Bass, by Illinois composer Ben Johnston, shows its age. The flute, fluttery and anguished, is accompanied by a tense yet low-keyed bass. The two engage in a spooky dialogue that goes nowhere. Then the flute, suddenly upbeat, goes into a series of shrill outbursts while the bass thumps. Just as unexpectedly they stop. Both instruments (played by Lane and Cameron) are used in ways one would have expected in the 50s and 60s; the only unusual feature is the matchup. Wayne Peterson’s Phantasmagoria (scored for flute, clarinet, and bass) is of the same vintage, and it too insists that the flute be fluttery and the bass be agitated and occasionally lilting. It does add a clarinet, which sounds melancholic much of the time. The first part is spare in texture, full of small gestures. The second part is jazzier, with a sitarish twang. The bass drones and moans (the piece was written for bassist Bertram Turetzky). After a while the music wears out its welcome.

There were two solo works in the concert, and both cleverly showcased their performer’s command of technique. The Jungle (1989) by Mandat is a jazzy tour de force for the clarinet. Its three sections are titled, rather pretentiously, “Call to Arms,” “Lament,” and “Apotheosis”–which means the music proceeds from cries to whispers to resigned calm. One neat touch is the liberal sprinkling of exotic microtones throughout, which make the piece sound vaguely familiar yet totally refreshing–it grows on you rather quickly. Barney Child’s Variations (1980) is less spellbinding, but it has its virtues. A set of themes and variations on the composer’s initials that incorporates the signature tune of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, it offers the bass a chance to stretch its talent. Never mind that the whole thing is really the kind of formal exercise one might turn in for a composition class.

Erik Lund says of his 1990 Consensus Fences that “it’s about an understanding of the temptation to follow, but the insistence that it be avoided.” (Composers come up with the darndest enigmas.) The instruments exchange sharp retorts at the beginning. The flute becomes fluttery and shrill (the evening’s cliche), and then all three sink into a funk (the bass is the grouchiest I’ve ever heard). Here and there the instruments seem to follow each other’s lead. The second section is livelier, with an overly nervous clarinet gasping at times, and before long all three are back to the vociferous give-and-take that opened the piece. Lund seems to have studied well the instrumentation and gestures used in the golden oldies of the 60s.

In his UIUS & J’est Falaffs (1990) Salvatore Martirano is up to his old trick of juxtaposing live and taped music. The first part has the trio playing a laid-back accompaniment while the tape plays urgent, tense, throbbing music that’s part new age and part disco. In the second part the trio provides an easygoing backup to the frantic, metallic music that’s punctuated by whistles and xylophone crescendos. It quickens its tempo to keep up with the taped music–and both swirl together in a mirthful frenzy. Ciosoni created a sense of mischief and irreverence that was pure delight. The trio also earned my appreciation for mastering the intricate timing.

Ornette Coleman is of course celebrated for his jazz works, yet neither his “Space Church” nor his “Peace Warriors” (both for flute, bass clarinet, and bass) sounded out of place on this program. In fact, they’re more spontaneous, more ingenuous, and better crafted than most of the other pieces. “Space Church” is soulful and meditative; “Peace Warriors” is upbeat, emotional, and playful. The members of Ciosoni were loose and relaxed–they looked like they were having the time of their life.