Ramsey Auditorium, Batavia

It is always a rare and welcome occasion when works by area composers are heard locally. But it is a rarer and even more welcome occasion when such works are given a first-rate performance–as when the Chicago Pro Musica, the Grammy Award-winning chamber ensemble made up of virtuoso musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, offered the area premieres of two important new works by local composers: Frank Abbinanti’s The Meteln Kassandra and Paul Martin Zonn’s The Clarinet in My Mind.

Both works were commissioned by the Pro Musica, which takes seriously its commitment to creating and presenting new Chicago music. The pieces were given their world premieres last month in the resonant Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana-Champaign, where several of the now legendary Solti-CSO recordings of the early 70s were made. Fermilab’s Ramsey Auditorium was a far more intimate setting–and an appropriate one given that the Abbinanti work is concerned with nuclear energy. The Meteln Kassandra is based on Christa Wolf’s novel Cassandra and her diaries that were written in Meteln, East Germany, during 1980 and ’81. Wolf was fascinated with the parallels between the ancient Greek legend about Cassandra and the contemporary East-West arms race, parallels that Abbinanti also explores.

The piece unfolds quietly, eerily–and then dynamics, pitch, range, and rhythm explode. The explosive passages emphasize the high brass and clarinet; the quieter sections emphasize a sustained string sound. It is a striking contrast.

One of the features of the piece is the use of the violin and the traditional violin cadenza, which was realized with considerable technical precision and appropriately frenzied feeling by Albert Igolnikov. Only in the long, sustained violin passages did some poor intonation emerge. Special mention must also be made of the Pro Musica brass section–George Vosburgh, trumpet; Daniel Gingrich, horn; and Charles Vernon, trombone–who virtuosically explored the outer fringe of the range of their instruments. Only toward the work’s finale did some of the brass playing become unbalanced. Frank Abbinanti took a bow with the performers during the enthusiastic response of the packed house.

Paul Martin Zonn was performing in Nashville, Tennessee, but his colorful music spoke clearly for him. Zonn is a virtuoso clarinetist, so it was natural that the commission from Pro Musica would emphasize clarinet, which is also Pro Musica leader and founder John Bruce Yeh’s instrument of choice.

The Clarinet in My Mind is a large-scale kaleidoscopic piece that uses the clarinet in a variety of ensembles–classical, jazz, ethnic, even minimalist–as a way of looking at things. The work had the advantage of having the superb and versatile Yeh as its soloist. As the piece opens, the clarinet softly emerges from the ensemble and then is mirrored by the other instruments. The instrumental effects are colorful–at one point, the theme is broken up by pizzicato violin and glockenspiel in tandem. Some of the violin playing was inaudible during this section, and there was an ensembling problem between horn and trombone, but the movement was given an atmospheric reading and was full of dynamic contrast.

Without pause the piece goes into a reggae-influenced jazz movement that spotlighted bassist Joseph Guastafeste, who thumped the wooden part of his bass while fingering an ostinato lick like Mingus; clarinetist Yeh wove around him with a snake-charmer-like theme. Later the trumpet and bassoon join in, although the latter was unfortunately drowned out by the former. The section is basically a romp, and it was strange to hear members of the CSO swinging away. Other sections include a whimsical dance in the style of minimalist Steve Reich and a concluding section that satirizes Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, complete with modified quotes–all bursting forth in a triumphant and colorful finale.

The L’histoire du soldat references were hardly coincidental, for the work in its complete form–narrated expertly by the man of a thousand voices, WFMT’s Carl Grapentine–concluded the evening. In fact, Yeh commissioned the new works with the L’histoire du soldat ensemble in mind; it is a standard repertoire piece for Pro Musica and was the lead piece on the recording that won the group their 1986 Grammy. Now, whenever the group is asked to do that work, these new pieces can be included on the program. This kind of clever commissioning–and the high quality of the two new pieces–will ensure that the pieces will not be heard today, gone tomorrow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Steere.