It's not every day that a veteran of new music in Manhattan premieres a substantial evening-long work in Chicago, but that is what David Lang did Thursday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art, with engaging, sometimes haunting results.
The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), since 2010 the museum's ensemble-in-residence, had commissioned from Lang "the whisper opera," a staged work for soprano and four instrumental soloists.
That it would not be an orthodox music drama was to be expected. But Lang confounded expectations in almost every way, yet still held listeners by means common to a lot of music from the last half century, which gave a sense of surprise growing out of the familiar.
Jim Findlay's design presented on the MCA stage a rectangle surrounded by ceiling-to-floor sheer white curtains. The rectangle encompassed four small stages; around each were seats for audience members, about 60 in all. More curtains set off each stage and group of seats from the others, allowing for the passage of sound but preserving a feeling of separateness.
Slowly moving through all the spaces was soprano Tony Arnold who gave cues and softly recited scraps of text Lang assembled from "secrets" posted by anonymous writers on the Internet. The instrumentalists, who occasionally exchanged places, also whispered texts, often no more than three feet away from listeners. In this manner Lang sought to provide a work that only may be heard, and then just barely, in live performance.
Arnold's movement and recitation was supported by slowly unfolding music of short, repetitive phrases, mostly played in quiet solos (for flutes, clarinets, cello and percussion) but occasionally joined or accompanied from afar. The music underlined the susurration of the texts, often suggesting natural sounds such as wind or the breaking of waves.
Four sections continued without pause, and Arnold sang only once (sweetly), to sustained, fairly loud accompaniment, in the last few of the work's nearly 90 minutes. At the main divisions, Christopher Kuhl's lighting changed color and intensity, adding to an atmosphere at once ritualistic and quotidian. That tension was maintained was an extraordinary achievement. That the experience proved arresting was undeniable.
The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 312-397-4010.
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