The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been working hard to convince audiences, particularly younger audiences, that if they miss any program in the CSO's contemporary music series, MusicNOW, they will miss something important in their lives. To judge from the large and enthusiastic crowd that turned out for the season's first MusicNOW concert on Monday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, that effort is paying off.
This season marks Mason Bates' and Anna Clyne's third year as curators of the series and the first as part of their two-year contract extension as composers in residence. Once again they assembled a stylistically diverse program, short in duration but long in gratification. In place of last season's skimpy annotations, program notes and biographies are being made available at the orchestra's website. Also, printed program cards now supplement the video program notes and composers' introductions.
The concert moved from the raw, abrasive sounds of Clyne's electro-acoustical "Roulette," for string quartet and electronica; to the extremely sparse, quiet transparencies of the London-based Edmund Finnis' "Unfolds," for five instruments; to the richly textured sonic tapestry that is Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg's "Souvenir," a three-movement work for 18 players, led by the Chicago-based conductor Edwin Outwater.
Lindberg wrote "Souvenir" as an homage to the late French composer Gerard Grisey, a pioneer of so-called spectral music, in which the physical properties of sound, as analyzed by computer, are used as compositional building blocks.
But Lindberg's musical influences are more traditional, grounded in a love of orchestral sonorities and their evocative possibilities. Kaleidoscopic waves of now-bustling, now-lyrical figures (some suggesting the sounds of a Balinese gamelan) gather and diminish in intensity before coalescing in the grand C-major chord that closes the toccata-like final movement. Amazing how "symphonic" this music sounds. It's a dazzler of a piece, ingeniously crafted, even if its language appears rather reactionary compared to that of some of the composer's other recent works.
The frisky sonic anarchy of Clyne's piece, complete with electronic overlay of New Age-y voices and synthesized whooshes and scrapes, all but blew the pale, sometimes barely audible tiny-work of Finnis' score off the stage. In everything, the CSO musicians and guests proved themselves to be the best friends a composer could want.
The remaining concerts in the 2012-13 MusicNOW series are Dec. 3, Feb. 25 and June 3; 312-294-3000, cso.org.
Consort performs 'the subtle art'
The Newberry Consort's debut concert 26 years ago was devoted to an exploration of ars subtilior (the subtle art), a school of composition that flourished in France in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Directors David Douglass and Ellen Hargis and their colleagues returned to that seldom-heard medieval repertory for their first concerts of the season over the weekend.
This was the avant-garde music of its day, marked by a rhythmic, polyphonic and chromatic complexity that sounds modern even to our jaded ears. The composers included in the performance I caught Saturday in the Performance Penthouse of the University of Chicago's spectacular new Logan Center for the Arts set melismatic vocal lines over three or more instrumental parts moving more or less independently. Performers of the highest virtuosity are needed to sort through the intricate polyphony.
If this makes the music sound overly intellectual, the subject matter – love songs, evocations of bird song and other pastoral scenes – is pure, sensuous delight.
The Newberry players were fully inside various rondeaux, virelais and ballades by Jacob de Senleches, Jean Vaillant and others, and the intimate concert room proved an ideal place for them to bring this secular music to life. Hargis sang the pieces with a still and delicate subtlety of expression, qualities mirrored by the equally sensitive instrumentalists – Shira Kammen, Tom Zajac, Mark Rimple and Douglass, playing vielle (medieval fiddle), rebec (bowed lute), harp, recorder, flute, bagpipe and lute.
The Newberry season will continue Jan. 25-27 (songs and poems of Robert Burns); and May 3-5 (early music from Poland); 773-669-7335, newberryconsort.org.
A few words about the distinguished German composer Hans Werner Henze, who died Saturday in Dresden, Germany, at 86. His prolific output, which included 10 symphonies and numerous operas, ballets, vocal, choral and chamber works, brought him international fame and embraced many styles, some reflecting his involvement in anti-fascist and socialist movements.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra once paid a good deal of attention to Henze's music, but that attention, alas, did not linger into recent decades.
The CSO gave the world premiere of his Double Bass Concerto in 1967 and "Heliogabalus Imperator" in 1972, under Jean Martinon and Georg Solti, respectively. Martinon also led the U.S. premieres of his Symphony No. 3 and "Musen Siziliens" ("The Muses of Sicily"), in 1963 and 1967, respectively. Henze guest conducted the CSO on three occasions, once in 1969 and twice in 1981. Included in the 1969 concerts were the U.S. premieres of his "Telemanniana" and Piano Concerto No. 2, with Christoph Eschenbach making his CSO debut as soloist.
Sharps and Flats
Mexican-born, Chicago-based pianist Jorge Federico Osorio has received the Medalla Bellas Artes Award, the highest honor given by Mexico's National Institute of Fine Arts. The award ceremony took place earlier this month at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Osorio's latest album, "Salon Mexicano," on the Cedille label, is a delightfully entertaining collection of neglected salon pieces by Ricardo Castro, Felipe Villanueva, Manuel Ponce and others.
Gisele Ben-Dor this week conducts the Chicago Sinfonietta's annual celebration of the Latin American holiday Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. The program holds works by Revueltas, Moncayo, Falla and others. Concerts are 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St.; and 8 p.m. Friday at Wentz Concert Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville; $26-$50; 312-284-1554, chicagosinfonietta.org.
The New York Philharmonic has extended the contract of music director Alan Gilbert through the 2016-17 season. He is now in his fourth season with the orchestra. Lindberg is the orchestra's resident composer.