at Fullerton Hall, Art Institute

November 17

Before last month Joan Tower, one of our country’s leading composers, didn’t know anything about the work of Ada Gentile, one of her Italian counterparts. Given the increasing insularity of communities of composers, new-music venues now tend to serve as exclusive outlets for musical cliques, each with its own taste and agenda. Tower, who works out of New York, told me she’s annoyed that the old boys’ network on the east coast often snubs her and her music. Partly in response, she’s now a member of American Women Composers (AWC), which promotes, laudably, works by women but sometimes follows the partisanship trend. The antipathy between composers on both coasts is a well-documented example of the trend; so too are the petty rivalries among academic camps.

The result of these rivalries is that works by a handful of established composers, commissions by major outfits, and particularly compelling works by up-and-comers might occasionally catch the attention of a wider circle, but most new compositions get only one hearing and are soon forgotten. In Chicago new pieces by Ralph Shapey, Shulamit Ran, and John Eaton may circulate widely, but those by their lesser-known colleagues at DePaul and Roosevelt universities are lucky to get a local premiere. Yet if American composers are generally ignorant of what many of their compatriots are up to, their attitude toward the latest currents in other countries borders on isolationism. And I suspect that the overwhelming majority of Western European composers are similarly ignorant of the contemporary-music scene here.

Tower and Gentile met for the first time last month at “Landscapes of the Mind,” a concert introducing their recent chamber works and those of other American and Italian women composers, all performed by local musicians. Gentile, who’s in her late 30s, teaches at Rome’s Santa Cecilia Conservatory, where she studied with veteran avant-gardist Goffredo Petrassi. Lately, according to a program note, she’s been trying out shimmering, misty sound textures, and both of her pieces on the program were fascinating explorations in the upper reaches of instrumental range. In Flashback (1984) a flute opens with tentative fluttery gestures in a region way above its usual range. At times it swoops downward, but not for long. Soon it’s joined by a nasal cello. Suddenly their airy, inchoate sparrings turn into the first few measures of “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Just as quickly they proceed to deconstruct the familiar duet into a series of terse atonal variations energized by bouts of feverish growls from the cello. Finally they go back to their desultory old ways before fading into nothingness. In Insight (1984) two violins and one viola huddle together, whispering, snarling, wailing, and squealing as if cornered or engaged in a fearful conspiracy. For long stretches their tone is tremulous and pitched high. As a denouement, the viola breaks ranks and sings a cadenza, becoming a solitary and sobering commentator on what has passed. (The sotto voce performance by violist Keith Conant and violinists Katherine Hughes and Thomas Yang was marred by a prolonged interruption from a beeper in the audience.) Both pieces are ingenious exercises in adding fresh and captivating sonorities to a mysterious, highly idiosyncratic conversation game. If I preferred Flashback, it’s because I’m partial to the flute-cello combo and because I was pleasantly startled by the artful intrusion of a Mozart melody.

In contrast to Gentile’s delicate, stubbornly private musings, the two pieces by Tower are dashingly extroverted and down-to-earth. Her Wings (1981) is unabashedly virtuosic. The solo clarinet, imitating a falcon in flight, takes off from a precarious perch and soars into a majestic arc. Again and again it twirls and whirls, then glides and dives. The execution requires pinpoint precision in dynamic control from the soloist, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s J. Lawrie Bloom did not disappoint. His assured and nuanced performance showed why the piece is popular with listeners and clarinetists alike. Tower acknowledges the influence of Messiaen–witness the clarinet’s flight pattern in Wings; she says another source of ideas is the music of Latin America, where she grew up. The quintessential Latin instrument, the guitar, is half of the team for her Snow Dreams (1983). Tower told the audience that at first she was reluctant to write for the unlikely duo of guitar and flute, but it’s good that she changed her mind. The piece begins with the guitar (Jeffrey Kust) playing a laid-back serenade. (Did I detect a theme from a piano sonata by Beethoven, another of Tower’s favorites?) The rhythm quickens, and the excitement is soon echoed by the flute (Caroline Pittman). The guitar takes its cue from the flute, and they dance with the nimbleness and seductiveness of figure skaters. The music’s piquancy comes from the unusual interplay of one instrument’s percussiveness and the other’s lilting lyricism.

Two Bagatelles (1988) by Gentile’s younger Italian colleague Sonia Bo also features guitar and flute, but in a heightened melodramatic fashion. The first miniature has the pair engaging in a heated argument, mostly in the upper registers, relieved now and then by tender pleading. In the second, both instruments are more playful, showy, and husky–as if they were acting out a parody of a domestic fight. The flute (Pittman) becomes breathier, the guitar (Kust) more agitated. Then both stop in a huff.

Cubi by the Israeli-born, Yale-educated Italian Betty Olivero is scored for yet another unconventional duo: cello and contrabass. Olivero deftly turns the limitations of the lowly two into amusing effects. The cello (William Cernota) and its sidekick (Collins Trier) are two stolidly pacing elephants. Sometimes they thump and heave; sometimes they try to outdrone each other; quite often they become animated and aggressive, carrying on a Beckett-like metaphysical discourse. In the end their groaning laments come to an inconclusive halt. This modest showpiece exhausts the bag of cello and doublebass tricks without wearing thin its welcome, a feat that should earn the gratitude of slighted cellists and bassists everywhere.

The American side of the program was also represented by Augusta Read Thomas and Kathleen Ginther. Young, prolific, and a Harvard junior fellow, Thomas is remarkably clever at adapting recognizable 20th-century styles to her own aesthetic purposes. Her one-movement string quartet Streams of Illusion (1987) is based on the “concept of phantasmagoria.” I heard ghostly echoes of Bartok: the piece is sober, intense, and introspective, conveying the sense of morose despair of the slow movement of a Bartok quartet. The performance by Hughes, Yang, Conant, and Cernota complemented Thomas’s meticulous craftsmanship, though it couldn’t lift the music above the impersonality of her intent.

Blue and Green Music, a string quartet by Northwestern University’s Ginther, is named after a Georgia O’Keeffe painting in the Art Institute. In an introduction a museum curator tried hard to connect the two works, but Ginther’s piece is basically a primer on modern string techniques unburdened by emotional context. (Not that O’Keeffe’s abstract canvas necessarily evokes emotional response.) I enjoyed hearing and watching the players show off their pizzicati and other sleights of hand, and the Shaker tune that sneaked in toward the end was a pleasant surprise. But the repertoire of techniques, though nicely compiled and adroitly performed, may not hold much interest for those who aren’t hard-core string fanciers.

The concert was a joint labor of love by AWC Midwest, the Italian Cultural Institute, the Art Institute, and Frank Abbinanti, a local composer who’s passionate about European music. Each is taking an active and largely open-minded role in promoting contemporary music. The Italian Cultural Institute, along with Goethe-Institut, has emerged as an avid champion of its country’s composers. (The British consulate and Alliance Francaise please take note.) The Art Institute is keen on ventures that highlight the symbiosis between the performing and visual arts. Their collaboration has already fulfilled one purpose. As the audience filed out of Fullerton Hall, Tower and Gentile were seen exchanging notes.