Mason Bates and Anna Clyne offered their usual cheery greetings to the audience, along with two of the pieces performed on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's MusicNOW contemporary program Monday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
But the composer who cast the mightiest shadow was Pierre Boulez, very much present in spirit although the great man was not present in the flesh.
Classical music's master modernist will turn 90 on Thursday, and the CSO has been celebrating that milestone with various events all season. Reportedly in poor health, Boulez has not appeared with the orchestra (where he holds the title of emeritus conductor) since 2010.
A big birthday cake was in order, and that was what the participating CSO musicians and guest artists served up at the end of the concert: "Derive 2," one of Boulez's most important works, nearly 20 years in the making.
Nearly everything in the composer's late output lives in a state of self-transformation, music that's subject to a never-ending process of revision and elaboration. Such is the case with "Derive 2," a dense, minutely crafted piece for 11 instruments.
When Boulez conducted it at a MusicNOW concert here in 2005, it lasted roughly 30 minutes; Monday's plugged-in performance of the latest, 2006 revision, under Cliff Colnot's direction, took about 50. Given the composer-conductor's reportedly poor eyesight, one must assume this is the work's definitive form.
The score's French title means "deviation," in the sense of a plane deviating from its course, or, by extension, the drifting of an object as a plaything of events. Thus, the carefully plotted symmetries of "Derive," based on the opposition of sequences of rhythmic cells distributed throughout the various instrumental groupings, are constantly interrupted by digressions that eventually take over and become the piece itself.
At least that's how this challenging, ingenious piece operates in theory. In practice, what we have is a kind of highly charged musical relay race during which an ever-changing array of splintery sounds shifts between chaos and calm. Occasional relaxation of density and speed allows players and listeners to catch their breath before the music recharges itself and takes off in new directions.
"Derive 2" is hugely difficult to perform and not at all easy to follow, but if you don't try to figure out what the exploding galaxies of notes mean and simply surrender to the music's glittering allure, you find yourself caught up in an oddly cathartic aural experience. At least that's how I felt at the end of it on Monday.
Colnot, whose working relationship with Boulez goes back some 25 years, drew certainties from his amazing musicians even where the score's "organized delirium" (Boulez's words) did not appear to allow for any.
Many composers of Bates' and Clyne's generation, while clearly respecting the importance of the advances Boulez has made in the musical language, have chosen not to follow his grammatical example, certainly not with his kind of complexity.
In fact, one could hardly imagine a greater foil to "Derive 2" than Clyne's "Postponeless Creature" (2015), a CSO commission that was having its world premiere – or, for that matter, Bates' solo piano "Indigo Workshop" (2014), which shared the program on Monday.
The 12-minute "Postponeless Creature" is one of five Emily Dickinson settings Clyne intends to combine to form a 75-minute multimedia chamber opera that will delve into the imagination of the great 19th century American poet.
The eponymous creature is death, and Clyne's treatment of Dickinson's very brief poem weaves the ethereal sound of three amplified women's voices through a chamber ensemble in which flutes, harpsichord and pre-recorded sounds establish an eerie, icy undercurrent. That said, the almost jaunty waltztime music that accompanies death's entrance makes the overall effect less somber than the composer perhaps intended.
The performance Colnot elicited from the 13-member ensemble and Chicago Symphony Chorus members Kathleen O'Brien Dietz, Kathryn Kamp and Elizabeth A. Grizzell was crisp and evocative.
Pianist Winston Choi was kept very busy throughout the program but really came into his own with the infectiously jumpy rhythms and bluesy harmonies of the Bates piece. A concise homage to Thelonious Monk, Gershwin, Ravel and other formative influences on the young composer, "Indigo Workshop" displays a different side of Bates than one knows from his electronica-infused orchestral works. Choi appeared to be having great fun with it, and so did the youngish, enthusiastic audience.
Both resident composers will have CSO-commissioned world premieres on subscription programs later this season. Clyne's violin concerto, "The Seamstress," will debut on May 28; and Bates' "Anthology of Fantastic Zoology" will be premiered under Riccardo Muti's direction at the end of the season on June 18.
Album of the week
Anna Clyne: "The Violin" (VIA Records)
This is one of the initial releases on a new contemporary music label from VisionintoArt, an interdisciplinary arts production company founded by New York-based composer Paola Prestini. The concept is unusual: Commissioned visual artists work with composers to create companion video pieces each of which, in the form of a DVD, is packaged along with an audio CD.
"The Violin" is actually a suite of violin duets played by violinists Neil Dufallo and Amy Kauffman, with layers of pre-recorded strings and fragments of poetry spoken by Clyne herself. The companion DVD combines the audio tracks with stop-motion animation by New York visual artist Josh Dorman. Antique images of birds, animals and machines float over old maps and dreamy pastel landscapes, their gentle whimsy nicely counterpointed with the soundtrack.
That music is serenely elegiac in mood, a kind of abstracted grieving (with echoes of J.S. Bach) for Clyne's mother, who died in 2008. Two of the seven sections, "Rest These Hands" and "Tea Leaves," in fact take their titles from poems written by her mother in the final year of her life.
Lovely performances, clear recording and creative packaging make this boxed set well worth investigating. I recommend it along with Prestini's absorbing multimedia opera, "Oceanic Verses," which is available on another recent VIA release. The video for Clyne's score is downloadable at the label's website, visionintoart.com.
Sharps and flats
Easter Sunday will bring a two-hour telecast of a special concert, "A Celebration of Peace Through Music." Created and conducted by Gilbert Levine, the concert was given in May 2014 in Washington D.C. to honor the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II by Pope Francis.
The musical selections range from Brahms to Bernstein and were chosen to reflect the popes' commitment to brotherhood among all peoples of all world religions. Performers include the Orchestra of St. Luke's, Krakow Philharmonic Choir and Washington Choral Arts Society, with commentary by Levine. The program will air locally at 3 p.m. April 5 on WTTW-Ch. 11. A radio version of the concert will be distributed nationally through the WFMT Radio Network; for more information, visit wfmt.com/peacethroughmusic.
Chicago-born violist Matthew Lipman is one of five recipients of the 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant. Other 2015 recipients are violinists Paul Huang, Kristin Lee and Simone Porter; and pianist Michael Brown. Lipman, 23, studies at the Juilliard School and tours with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Tim Munro, flutist and co-artistic director of eighth blackbird, will leave the Chicago-based new music ensemble at the end of the current season to pursue other musical interests. Succeeding him, beginning in 2015-16, will be New York-based flutist Nathalie Joachim, co-founder of the urban art-pop duo Flutronix.
Duffie Adelson announced Wednesday she will retire as president of Chicago’s Merit School of Music, after 33 years of service at the school, which provides high-quality music education to thousands of area children, especially those living in economically disadvantaged communities. She will step down June 30 but has agreed to remain as a resource while the board hires a new executive director to replace Thomas F. Bracy, who left earlier this year.