The openness of MusicNOW series curators Mason Bates and Anna Clyne to divergent styles of contemporary composition can cut both ways. On some occasions it can produce stylistic hodgepodges that add up to less than the sum of their components. On other occasions it can yield programs whose contrasting elements set off each other's distinctive musical virtues in ways that are bracing to both ear and mind.
The season finale, presented Monday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, fell in the latter category.
Three of the four chamber works performed, expertly so, by Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians and guests were musical rivulets of different character, reflecting the eclectic spirit that governs the CSO's "Rivers" festival as it nears its close.
The fourth piece, Bates' own "Difficult Bamboo" (2013), a MusicNOW commission that was receiving its world premiere, related not so much to a body of water as to the natural environment, or, rather, a pesky threat to that environment.
Previously heard works by the CSO's composer in residence, such as his "Liquid Interface" (heard last week) and "Alternative Energy," have identified mankind as despoiler of the ecology. But in "Difficult Bamboo," the despoiler is mother nature herself – an invasive type of bamboo that multiplies wildly and ruins wildlife habitats.
Bates turns the idea into a 20-minute sextet that, in the composer's words, "begins as a minimalist piece and then goes maximal, in a kind of psychotic way." Although "Difficult Bamboo" eschews the electronica that is so often integral to his palette, the jumpy, twitchy rhythmic activity he draws from his ensemble of strings, winds, piano and percussion suggest techno translated into acoustical terms.
The musical progression is typical Bates. Quiet, pastoral scene-painting gives way to a manic freakout of dislocated rhythms, slashing chords and de-tuned instrumental interplay, as the tendrils of bamboo encroach ever greater on a sylvan landscape. At times the frenetic activity lets up just long enough for a slow blues or a sweet bit of diatonic harmony to emerge.
The composer overplays his hand by having his players shout out words near the end of the piece; apart from that gratuitous touch, "Difficult Bamboo" is a winner, one of Bates' most appealing, shrewdly plotted pieces. The crowd ate it up. MusicNOW principal conductor Cliff Colnot made all the rough places plain, drawing a tight, spirited performance from Baird Dodge, violin; Kenneth Olsen, cello; Jennifer Gunn, flute; Susan Warner, clarinet; Cynthia Yeh, percussion; and Kuang-Hao Huang, piano.
Yeh returned to the stage along with three equally virtuosic percussion colleagues – Eric Millstein, Jacob Nissly and Ian Ding – for Kaija Saariaho's "Trois Rivieres" (1994). The masterful, Paris-based Finnish composer creates a veritable symphony in three movements for pitched and unpitched percussion plus prerecorded, electronically altered voices.
Ghostly fragments of a poem by the 8th century Chinese poet Li Po float in and out of a sonic phantasmagoria that reflects Saariaho's ear for exquisitely delicate timbres as well as her ability to organize a welter of live percussion and synthesized sounds into a hauntingly expressive whole. The amazing Yeh and her fellow, hard-working percussionists made the music sound easy, which it decidedly isn't.
The opening works, Christopher Theofanidis' "Summer Verses" (2009) and Marcos Balter's "Live Water" (2007), represent very different aesthetics, the former work espousing traditional tonality and instrumental techniques, the latter being a gritty study in electro-acoustical stream of consciousness.
The Theofanidis had the amplified Yuan-Qing Yu, violin, and Olsen, cello, completing each other's musical sentences, sometimes joined in very "American"-sounding harmonies, sometimes peeling off from one another into frisky rhythmic interplay. Yu and Olsen performed three of the score's five sections. The third movement's sonorous double-stops carried a plaintive, Bartokian tinge. Monday's duo made it all go down most ingratiatingly.
Like the Saariaho, Balter's piece takes inspiration from a literary source, in this case Clarice Lispector's 1973 novel "The Stream of Life." Here the amplified violist Weijing Wang dispensed tremolos, rapid string-crossings and pulsing notes over a continuum of processed sounds that included whispered fragments of Lispector's text. The result was an eerie, often harsh, sonic soup. At six minutes, it was enough.
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