Startling premieres from John Zorn and the Bad Plus

Toward the end of the John Zorn Retrospective concert Saturday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the composer briefly took the stage to say a few words.

"I've learned music is about people," said Zorn, gesturing to members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) alongside him.

"The composition is just a platform for enabling their creativity. And you've got to put the right little squiggles on paper to make sure they're inspired."

Zorn has been crafting those little squiggles to great effect over the past several decades, which is why institutions across the country have been celebrating his recent 60th birthday with major concerts such as the ICE homage. Yet his works are so stylistically wide-ranging and his catalog of compositions so large that no single concert really could be considered a retrospective: It would take a dozen evenings just to glance the surface of his output.

So ICE did the next best thing, focusing almost entirely on recent works, thereby avoiding the "retro" but providing plenty of in-the-moment perspective.

The program's high point immediately followed Zorn's cameo, conductor David Fulmer leading instrumentalists in the world premiere of Zorn's "Baudelaires." A kind of abstract fantasy inspired by writings of the French poet Charles Baudelaire, the piece made considerable impact even apart from its literary subtext.

At first glance, the instrumentation might have seemed capricious, Zorn having written intensely complex, tightly woven parts for flute and bass flute, bass clarinet, bassoon, harpsichord, acoustic guitar, violin, viola and cello. Once the musicians began to play, however, the selection of instruments made sense: In effect, Zorn has written a kind of 21st century concerto grosso, the harpsichord and guitar evoking the continuo writing of the Baroque period; the opposition of various instrumental groups suggesting an ensemble concerto; the thematic material utterly contemporary and by turns dissonant, euphonious, sinuously melodic and rhythmically agitated.

In some passages, the long and sensuous bass flute lines of ICE artistic director Claire Chase recalled the sublime lyricism of George Frideric Handel, albeit swathed in dissonance from the rest of the ensemble. In other moments, the eerie glissandos and tremolo writing for strings was abruptly interrupted by harpsichord flourishes evoking the milieu of J.S. Bach. A pervasive tension between past and present, strings and winds, soloists and ensemble drove this piece forward.

Ultimately, "Baudelaires" could be considered an essay on clashing historical perspectives and a tour de force of instrumental tone painting, a piece rich in incident and unpredictable in its progress. The work compressed a tremendous amount of information into roughly 15 minutes, but the piece never sounded forced, self-conscious or artificial. On the contrary, it flowed. "Baudelaires" could be a contender for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, if submitted.

The rest of the evening attested to the breadth of Zorn's writing, even if some works proved more effective than others. Joshua Rubin brought pervasive musicality to Zorn' solo clarinet piece "the steppenwolf," but its rudimentary arpeggios and conventional harmonic implications could not sustain interest. By contrast, it was easy to savor the constant inventiveness of "Occam's Razor," brilliantly dispatched by pianist Cory Smythe and cellist Michael Nicolas; the narrative quality and pictorial effects of "the tempest," with virtuoso duetting from flutists Chase and Rubin plus drummer Tyshawn Sorey; and the Expressionist effects and Second Viennese School influences of "Walpurgisnacht: A Witches' Sabbath" hyper-dramatically brought to life by violinist Erik Carlson, violist Kyle Armbrust and cellist Nicolas.

Many listeners had been expecting that the evening would conclude with a conversation between Zorn and Chase, both winners of MacArthur Fellowships, but Zorn did something better, bringing out his alto saxophone for a free improvisation encore with drummer Sorey. Here was yet another facet of Zorn's art: explosive, high-energy bursts of sound ricocheting off Sorey's volleys — and vice versa.

Now that's how to celebrate a 60th.

'On Sacred Ground'

Only fearless or foolish souls would attempt to reconceive one of the most galvanic orchestral scores of the 20th century for jazz trio. Yet that's precisely what the Bad Plus did Friday night at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, re-imagining Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" – popularly known as "The Rite of Spring" – for piano, bass and drums in the multimedia presentation "On Sacred Ground."

This might seem an act of folly, since no three instruments possibly could capture the savage rhythmic accents and brazen instrumental dissonances at the heart of Stravinsky's ballet score. But the Bad Plus, in a revelatory Chicago premiere, didn't try to mimic orchestral effects that cannot be duplicated by lesser instrumental forces. Instead, the trio revealed inner voices, harmonic conflicts and developments of motif that are to some degree obscured in Stravinsky's thick symphonic writing.

So those already familiar with the visceral downbeats and constantly shifting meters of the original encountered the same music but delivered with illuminating textural clarity. To hear pianist Ethan Iverson articulating Stravinsky's enormous chords, bassist Reid Anderson intoning the composer's darkly brooding melodies and drummer Dave King powering stark, severe rhythmic exclamations was to perceive a tour de force of musical synthesis.

Iverson consistently refused to turn the piano part into mere bombast, an obvious temptation. Instead, he simply let Stravinsky's polytonality – which was shocking during the work's 1913 premiere and still jolts the ear – speak vividly for itself. Even when Iverson played single note lines, he didn't try to pump up the music, showing faith in Stravinsky's ability to lure an audience with the sparest gestures.

Drummer King surely turned in the most imaginative work of all, for he was playing music largely of his own invention (since Stravinsky obviously didn't notate a part for drum set). Somehow, King stayed true to the rhythmic essence of the original while creating colors and alternate themes evoking the spirit of jazz. Above all, it was King who catapulted this score headlong into the 21st century.

The performance was accompanied by video clips created by Cristina Guadalupe and Noah Hutton, and some of their abstract images were engaging. But most of the visuals – from shots of animals to flickering lights – seemed arbitrary at best, trivial at worst. Even the concluding passages of a whirling, bouncing dancer (and her reflection) were quite tame, particularly in comparison with what we know of Vaslav Nijinsky's original choreography.

This reinvented "Rite" proved so strong musically that it needed no visual counterpoint, though a far more striking one would have been welcome.

hreich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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