at Mandel Hall

April 21


at Grace Place

April 26

Two recent new-music events offered the chance to compare the approaches of the contemporary music ensembles of Chicago’s most important music schools: the University of Chicago’s Contemporary Chamber Players and the Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble. The U. of C. group was presenting its annual Paul Fromm concert, performing works of Edgard Varese, Elliott Carter, John Anthony Lennon, and Ralph Shapey. The Northwestern group was making a rare downtown appearance as part of New Music Chicago’s Spring Festival ’89, performing works of Reginald Bain, Paul Martin Zonn, Anton Webern, and Pierre Boulez.

When American music patriarch and Chicagoan Paul Fromm passed away in the summer of 1987, he left a provision in his will that the annual free spring concert bearing his name would continue. This year’s concert was also the 25th anniversary of Ralph Shapey’s Contemporary Chamber Players, who, as always, were the centerpiece performers. Although Shapey was on leave from his position as professor of music at the U. of C., he returned to make his only appearance with the ensemble this season.

Shapey, according to the program, was a friend of Varese, who is finally getting the recognition he deserves as one of 20th-century music’s true giants of innovation. Although Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok are still generally considered to be the century’s most important composers, the true avant-garde pioneers were Charles Ives in America and Varese in Europe (though he also did important work here). Varese, like Ives, had a deep fascination with sound itself. His innovations in the 20s and 30s were so far ahead of their time that the instruments and technology available couldn’t keep up with his ever-expanding imagination.

Octandre is one of Varese’s earliest and most traditional works, although even traditional Varese sounds astonishingly fresh even by today’s standards. It is a watershed work in terms of its emphasis on musical gesture and transformation rather than theme and variation; what changes throughout the work is the density and color of the sound. The title is deliberately misleading, for although there are eight players, the flute player doubles on piccolo, and the clarinetist alternates with piccolo clarinet. The ensemble also includes oboe, bassoon, trumpet, horn, trombone, and bass viol. By continually shifting instrumental timbres and combinations, and by contrasting extreme registers and dynamic levels across the ensemble, Varese creates a new and unique sound world that seems far beyond the capabilities of such a tiny chamber ensemble.

Shapey kept very tight rhythmic and dynamic control over the ensemble. It was a slow performance–at least compared to performances here three years ago by Pierre Boulez’s L’Ensemble InterContemporain–but a convincing one. If it lacked warmth, it showed a good sense of the work’s overall architecture and purpose, and featured some superb oboe playing, although the flute had trouble sustaining some of the register extremes.

Elliott Carter’s A Mirror on Which to Dwell is a song cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble set to six poems by Elizabeth Bishop. It is a fascinating exploration of the worlds of sound and prose, with the music always mirroring the poetry. Soprano Elsa Charlston was quite effective in conveying the essence of these multilayered, paradoxical poems, which concern love, beauty, nature, and even existential isolation. The work’s sound texture and musical meaning are so dense that multiple hearings are necessary to catch the many nuances, yet it immediately draws you into its simultaneous absurdity and busyness.

In contrast, a single hearing of John Anthony Lennon’s Seven Translations (also sung by Charlston) is more than enough to reveal its superficiality–the poetry and the music are rather one-dimensional. One of the last Fromm Foundation works commissioned during Fromm’s lifetime, this set of songs is scored for piano, violin, and clarinet, but neither the violin nor the clarinet is given anything more than a sketch score of the piano accompaniment, which itself is minimal and riddled with stylistic cliches from Barber, Copland, and Britten.

The main work of the evening was a 1987 score by Shapey, the Concertante No. II for Alto Saxophone and Fourteen Players, which was receiving its local premiere. The soloist for the work, Cynthia Sikes, wore a white, studded, skin-tight dress that sparkled continuously as she swayed and danced in rhythm throughout her performance. Added to Shapey’s own rather choreographic podium style, all of this movement helped to offset the often ferocious intensity of the score. The opening alto-sax theme–which is relentless in its raucousness and extremes of timbre, tone, and pitch–is answered by a muted trumpet while alternating with pounding timpani and percussion. The opening movement was a bit ponderous at times and seemed to cry out for a faster tempo and some dynamic refinement. During the middle movement the strings were difficult to hear; the theme was broken up first by the alto sax, answered by the percussion, and then picked up by the rest of the ensemble–all while building dynamically. A percussion ostinato figure appeared, which was set off against the alto sax and high winds and punctuated by brass chords.

The work’s climactic conclusion picks up in tempo, dynamics, density, and range, but returns to lower registers and quieter dynamic levels. A lyrical cadenza is played by the alto sax, making for a satisfying resolution. As with most of Shapey’s music, the work puts great emphasis on color and gesture. When given this convincing a performance, it is quite accessible.

It might seem unfair to compare Shapey’s group, which is made up of professional players, with the Northwestern group, which is all students. But although Shapey’s group has the luxury of a strong conductor, the Northwestern group has that greatest of musical luxuries: virtually unlimited rehearsal time.

The first piece on their program was a student work, Reginald Bain’s Sepulchre Masque, which was conducted by the composer. Unfortunately the work was played excruciatingly loud, no allowance having been made for the band-room-size hall. The piece, which is scored for sax quartet, contrasts dissonance and consonance, and high and low registers. It also exploits all of the worst features of saxophones–ugly sound, dissonant multiphonics, poor intonation, etc. Taken as a whole, the three-movement work was basically a study in meandering, with some minimalist and jazz influence. Whatever the composer may have been trying to do to keep order, none of the players were paying him the slightest bit of attention.

Paul Martin Zonn’s The Voyage of Columbus is a whimsical bicentennial piece for chamber ensemble that is intended to describe what Columbus might have encountered had he arrived at the New York Port Authority in 1976. The piece starts off with the dignity you would expect, but gradually ride cymbals and muted brass give way to a walking bass that opens a big-band swing section. The work then uses chimes and busy instrumental textures to contrast church bells with traffic jams, arcades, even disco–a juxtaposition of the sacred and the secular. The clever climax of the piece has the brass section moving over to the timpani and simultaneously muting their instruments on the head. The piece was well executed, although the conducting of graduate assistant Sarah Reckmeyer was tentative and had little imagination.

The highlight of the concert was an outstanding performance of Anton Webern’s Quartet op. 22, scored for violin, clarinet, saxophone, and piano. One of the reasons that serial composers are so unpopular with audiences is that performances of their works are seldom done with style and conviction. Webern is particularly difficult; because of his great economy of expression, the immensely dense character of his works is often overlooked by performers. But ensemble director Don Owens had coached the players extensively, and the piece was played with great lyrical flow that made it extremely musical. Although the players were students, this was no student performance; it penetrated the deeper meaning of the score and was full of dynamic contrast and heartfelt expression. Bravo.

The program concluded with Pierre Boulez’s Messagesquisse, scored for an ensemble of six cellos (only five were used) and cello soloist (Northwestern cello professor Hans Jorgen Jensen). The title refers to the “message sketch” that Boulez transmits in the score, namely notes that translate the letters of the name of his friend, the great 20th-century music patriarch Paul Sacher. The piece is quite complex structurally and yet was beautifully played–which is no small feat. Boulez lamented the fact that the CSO string section was still not playing a piece of his correctly when he was here in 1987. I think he would have been quite pleased with this performance–the ensembling was tight, the phrasing musical, the sound warm and full, and the group intonation unbroken.