Contempo ensembles take on rigors of new European music
March 7, 2016
By John Von Rhein
It’s been a rewarding couple of days for local followers of new and relatively new Polish music.
At Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription concerts this week and last, audiences were reminded of Witold Lutoslawski’s CSO-commissioned Third Symphony ranking as one of the landmark orchestral scores of the late 20th century.
Monday night in the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts’ Performance Hall at the University of Chicago, two of Poland’s most prominent composer-performers, vocalist Agata Zubel and double bassist Tadeusz Wielecki, were the focus of a Contempo series exploration of their music and that of other European composers.
Polish-born composer and U. of C. music professor Marta Ptaszynska, the series’ new artistic director and curator of Monday’s program, included a piece of her own in the mix, which leapt across European borders to present scores by the late Russian avant-gardist Alfred Schnittke and the late French composer Christophe Bertrand. Members of the university-resident ensemble eighth blackbird did most of the heavy lifting, performance-wise, with the Pacifica Quartet anchoring the opening and closing portions of the concert.
The diverse program suggested that living Eastern European composers march to a rather different aesthetic than their colleagues in the West. At the risk of generalizing, theirs is a more ideological music, music that asks big, serious questions and assumes rigorous ethical positions. It is not about putting note patterns on paper that would necessarily please the listener; rather, it is more about disturbing listener preconceptions about what expressive boundaries music can and should cross.
Zubel’s “Not I” (2012), a setting for vocalist, ensemble and synthesized sounds, of excerpts from Samuel Beckett’s monologue of the same title, is such a piece. The protagonist — here, the composer herself — engaged in a kind of heightened Sprechstimme (speech song), singing, speaking, crooning, laughing and whispering in increasingly intense dialogue with a churning welter of instrumental sounds and her recorded alter ego.
Even though long stretches of the absurdist English text were unintelligible when all of the musicians (including a percussionist wailing away on drum kit) were going full tilt, Zubel scored an amazing tour de force of vocal virtuosity. Having taught herself to sing her music out of practical necessity in her native Wroclaw, Poland, the composer-performer displayed uncanny accuracy of pitch and dramatic intensity as she navigated the jagged intervals of song and recitation. “Not I” tests the stamina of performers and listeners alike and goes on longer than it has to. But no matter: Zubel clearly is to her generation of new-music vocalists what the great Cathy Berberian was to hers.
Zubel also gave a gripping performance of the program’s other work of vocal music theater, Bertrand’s “Madrigal” (2004-05). The French composer’s early death — he passed away in 2010, at 29 — deprived European new music of an arresting voice. His 10-minute setting for soprano and ensemble of texts by Italo Calvino, Roland Barthes and Francois Rabelais spun ecstatic bursts of song and speech over a remarkably sensuous, shimmering palette of instrumental colors and textures. Zubel’s tone was warm, her intonation true, her French diction crystalline, her interaction with the instrumentalists as precise as it was in her own piece.
The Warsaw-based Wielecki is active as a double bass performer when he isn’t directing the famed Warsaw Autumn Contemporary Music Festival. His piece for solo bass and ensemble, “The Thread Is Spinning … IV” (2012), is part of an open-ended cycle of works for string instruments. Wielecki’s deep-throated double bass functioned here as a rude sonic catalyst, sparking murmurous, whistling, sometimes extremely subtle eruptions of musical activity from the other players. I didn’t find much expressive coherence in the score’s disparate gestures, but they were brilliantly taken by the fearless bassist and the intrepid blackbirds, fresh from their fourth Grammy Award win.
The Pacifica foursome added ballast to the agenda with its incisive accounts of Ptaszynska’s “Mosaics” (2012) and Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 2 (1980).
Dedicated to the Pacifica Quartet, “Mosaics” takes its overall inspiration from Beethoven’s knotty “Grosse Fuge” (from which it briefly quotes) and its structural symmetries from the mosaics of Moorish architecture. Of the concert’s five works, it was the most overtly grounded in the Western classical tradition, and also the most coherent and appealing as it emerged from Monday’s closely argued performance.
Schnittke’s bleak deconstruction of Shostakovich’s late string quartet idiom begins in tonal ambiguity, slams into a harsh wall of sound in the Agitato section and settles into a distorted rendering of an old Russian church hymn before dying away in a spent whimper. This isn’t music for the faint of heart, but the wondrous Pacifica players were fully inside its technical difficulties and made as much music of them as any string quartet possibly can.
John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.