Concert Review: Impromptu Fest

Posted by By Lawrence A. Johnson of Chicago Classical Review

The Heare Ensemble performed George Crumb’s “Vox Balanae” Thursday night at the Impromptu Festival. Photo: L. Johnson

Impromptu Fest 2019, presented by New Music Chicago, opened Thursday night in the unlikeliest of venues. Guarneri Hall is situated on the third floor of a chilly corporate Loop office building, where a narrow hallway and labyrinth lead to the tinyvenue.

The new “hall” was commissioned by Darnton & Hersh Violins, situated a few doors down and across Adams Street, and designed by Threshold Acoustics. Billed as a “not-for-profit classical music incubator,” Guarneri Hall is said to seat 95 people. But Thursday night’s youthful turnout was closer to half that and the crowd still overflowed the small conference-room-like space, necessitating additional chairs being brought in. PianoForte Studios seems like Rockefeller Chapel by comparison.

The good news is that the sound in the room is exquisite—clear, detailed and yet not clinical with nice bloom. Unusually for such a small space, even bold piano fortissimos emerged rich yet weren’t overwhelming.

There are other issues. The flat floor, low ceiling and lack of risers makes for terrible sight-lines for anyone not sitting in the first row; one had to constantly crane one’s neck between tall heads to catch sight of the performers. And esthetically the bare, narrow hall and cramped utilitarian seating makes for a less-than-ingratiating concert experience.

That said, the music itself was the main thing. Curated by composer-pianist Amy Wurtz, Impromptu Fest is offering a wide array of contemporary music through March 31. Thursday night’s performances were solid to excellent and got the two-week Impromptu Fest off to a fine start.

A trio from Fifth House Ensemble was originally scheduled to open the festival, but a slip on the ice and subsequent injury to pianist Katherine Petersen necessitated a program change.

FHE cellist Herine Coetzee Koschak was in the spotlight for the first half of the program, offering a varied mix of music for her solo instrument, all written within the past decade.

Caroline Shaw’s in manus tuas spins off the composer’s impressions upon first hearing a Tallis motet. Shaw is one of those rare composers who writes convincingly for a variety of resources and makes an individual impression with great economy.

The music begins quietly with light vocal chanting from the cellist, segueing into frenzied neo-Bachian counterpoint. Yet the disparate elements cohere seamlessly in this nine-minute work, given an ardent performance by Koschak.

Two works followed, each written for Koschak when both composers were students.

Jonathan Hannau was on hand to hear his Fire Rainbow Cloud. The work opens with barely audible instrumental rustling, moving into swooping glissandos, discordant chords and high fast notes. All were played with impressive facility by Koschak but ultimately Hannau’s work seemed more like a series ofbrilliant effects than a unified whole.

Pete Fernandez’s Garden of Earthy Delights made a stronger impression if not always with an original voice—there are some baldly direct echoes of Zoltan Kodaly’s epic Sonata for Solo Cello. Still the jagged phrases, pungent asperities and final virtuosic flourish provided the cellist with some opportunities for slam-bang bravura.

Ayanna Woods’ BLK GIRL ART could have been jettisoned from the cellist’s hour-long program. There was no musical component by Koschak at all in this short film about a young girl reading her poetry while walking the city streets.

Unchained Melodies by Fifth House colleague Dan Visconti is a modular, interlocking work, consisting of ten10-minute solo works, which can be combined in almost endless configurations for any number and combination of instruments.

Koschak’s solo cello version moves from an ars antiche-like passageto long bowed notes and a bristling, technically demanding final section, thrown off by Koschak with flamboyant virtuosity to end the first half.

Less flashy but more communicative was Book of Ruth by Marc Mellits, who was also in the audience Thursday. (The Impromptu Fest’s online program notes didn’t offer any info about this Mellits work nor, oddly, did the prolific composer’s website.)Yet Book of Ruthshows Mellits’ engaging style at its best, mixinga characteristic vein of lyrical yearningwith galumphing dance rhythms and a rustic folk element, all communicated with spirit and dedication by Koschak.

After a brief intermission, the Heare Ensemble (flutist Jennie Oh-Brown, cellist Kurt Fowler and pianist Jennifer Blyth) took the stage, leading off with Carter Pann’s Melodies for Robert.

Dedicated to the memory of Chicago flutist Robert Vincent Jones, Pann’s brief work opens with a lushly soaring theme for cello. A pastoral melody follows, then a bit of chugging urban energy. Pann’s lovely, refreshingly retro valedictory was sensitively played by all, some fleeting flute sharpness apart.

The title of Narong Prangchaoren’s Bencharong references the porcelain of Chinese and Thai origins,with each of the five movements named by one of its colors. Enhanced by some subtle lighting effects, the Heare members surely conveyed the varied musical styles, from the jazz-like lines of “Red,”to the melancholy cello and plucked piano strings of “Yellow” and the piercing high piccolo of “Black.”

The evening closed with an undisputed classic and the oldest work on the program—George Crumb’s Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale), written in 1971.

Donning their half-masks, the Heare Ensemble did a mostly admirable job with Crumb’s cetacean trio, though there were some inevitable compromises. Rather than bathing a darkened stage with deep-blue light, as called for in the score, the Heare members had to settle for a bit of blue light on the back wall in a fairly bright room.

More crucially, the cramped quarters and up-close acoustic didn’t provide the spatial ambience required to allow Crumb’s weird and wonderful music and remarkable sonic effects to register. The essential mystery and haunting atmosphere of the piece was often wanting; Oh-Brown’s vocalise was too present and mundane to convey Crumb’s otherworldly effect (though her whistling later on got closer to what the composer was seeking).

Despite the lack of distanced sound-painting, the Heare Trio provided a worthy account, with pianist Blyth the most in synch with the score in her bold yet evocative handling of the prepared piano part.

Let’s hope that one of Chicago’s enterprising new-music groups sees fit to fete George Crumb on his 90th birthday (October 24) in the fall. This unique American original deserves no less.

Published on Chicago Classical Review on March 22, 2019

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