Contempo invites audience to hear the art, see the music
November 16, 2009
By John von Rhein, Tribune Critic
Music and visual art have long enjoyed a close, if rather one-sided relationship. (How many paintings do you know that were inspired by pieces of music?) Contempo, the University of Chicago’s new music collective, built the bulk of the opening concert of its 45th season Saturday night around recent music based on famous art works from the 16th through 20th centuries.
The event at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall drew on the considerable talents of the U. of C. music department’s resident ensembles, eighth blackbird and the Pacifica Quartet, which joined forces for the Chicago premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s “Knight, Death and Devil,” along with works by Laura Elise Schwendinger, Karim Al-Zand and Andres Carrizo.
Quite apart from the merits of the scores themselves, it was wonderful to behold these groups pooling energies in such fashion. It was helpful, too, to have visual material integrated into the performances.
The Rzewski piece, which takes its title and inspiration from Albrecht Durer’s famed allegorical engraving, was commissioned by eighth blackbird last year for use during its tours. Its wind, string and percussion parts allow the ensemble’s six musicians to perform with local string quartets in the various places they visit.
The dozen sections form a wild and crazy collage of quirky gestures taken to grotesque lengths when evoking the ghastly corpse, grinning devil and other disturbing images that crowd Durer’s canvas. Skittish, impudent bursts of rhythmic activity combine to whimsical effect that’s periodically interrupted by the percussionist’s frenzied banging and stomping on trash cans. Did I mention the players also howl like banshees?
I enjoyed a lot of things about “Night, Death and Devil” but found the actual trashing of trash cans repetitious and finally exasperating, redolent of so much gimmicky performance art from the 1970s that has receded into the mists of history. Rzewski can do much better than this, and has done so.
Schwendinger’s 2005 “High Wire Act” achieved more by attempting less. Inspired by the wire circus figures of sculptor Alexander Calder, the four character portraits, with their high twitterings, undulating arpeggios and rippling figurations, evinced an acute sonic imagination and sure command of craft. The piece was beautifully played by eighth blackbird.
Al-Zand’s elegiac “Lamentations on the Disasters of War, after the etchings by Goya” (2006), moved from eerie stillness to violent intensity and back, quite shattering in effect as delivered by six string players from the two ensembles.
Carrizo’s “Fantasia Sobre Soledad” (2009), the only piece not to have been inspired by visual art, also deploys a wide lexicon of modernist string techniques — from Bartokian snapped pizzicatos to furious tremolos suggesting swarms of insects — to pay homage to Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Carrizo, a doctoral candidate at the U. of C., shows a distinct flair for the dramatic that should carry him far. The Pacifica’s supercharged reading surely gladdened his heart.
The Contempo season will continue with concerts Jan. 16, March 24, May 14 and 26.