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Music of Bates and Clyne in spotlight at MusicNOW

Mason Bates
Chicago Classical Review

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra had a big day Monday with the announcement of the 2014-15 season and the news that Riccardo Muti’s contract has been extended through 2020.

That may have accounted for Monday night’s MusicNOW concert at the Harris Theater starting 15 minutes late. The concert, however, capped off a busy day for the CSO in superb style with one of the most consistent programs heard at this new-music series in recent years. Both of the CSO’s composers-in-residence, Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, were represented.

Bates’ String Band (2002) is an early work—if any work can be considered early for a 37-year-old composer. Despite his renown for use of electronica and hard-driving percussion, Bates’s music is often strongest when he eschews the plugged-in hipster tropes for more traditional forces.

String Band is scored for classical piano trio (violin, cello and piano) although the piano is prepared with screws and pencil erasers to give it a “twangy” sound and prevent it from overpowering the strings.

Bates’ unapologetic mining of populist Americana is one of his most likable musical qualities. String Band begins with a seesawing bluegrass-like tune for the strings, which segues into faster music, backed by a repeated-note insistence in the piano. The string music becomes more rhythmic and bluesy against the piano’s pointillist piano notes, before a highly expressive theme emerges, here led by Yuan-Qing Yu’s sweet-toned violin. The music slows down and becomes more widely spaced with the resonating strings achieving a kind of uneasy solace before a final flourish.

String Band is one of Bates’ most successful works, and was given stellar advocacy in a polished, highly energized performance by violinist Yu, cellist Kenneth Olsen and pianist Winston Choi.

Martin Matalon’s heavy accent made his video introduction a bit difficult to understand, yet the Argentinian-French composer’s Traces II spoke most eloquently in its U.S. premiere.

Unlike many electronic pieces which rely on gestural effects or a bewildering farrago of squeaks and squawks, Traces II is the real thing. Scored for amplified solo viola, the work is cast in three continuous movements, spanning fifteen minutes. Matalon conjures up a wide array of contrasted material for the hard-working soloist, whose amplified playing and echoed riffs create a fusillade of unearthly amped sonorities.

Weijing Wang served up a gripping tour de force performance of this heavy-metal viola showpiece. She blazed through the complex demands and bravura writing, the electronic rumbles, echoes and variegated sounds from her live playing ricocheting around the theater.

Anna Clyne was probably tempting fate by calling her latest work Postponeless Creature. The world premiere slated for Monday’s program was, aptly enough, postponed. Few likely felt shortchanged though with the performance of Clyne’s The Lost Thought, which was heard instead.

The work is inspired by a short Emily Dickinson poem and scored for three female voices and large mixed chamber ensemble: string quartet, three flutes, bassoon doubling on contrabassoon, timpani, percussion and harpsichord.

The Lost Thought is part of a larger planned multimedia work of Clyne’s that will encompass five Dickinson poems (the first part, As Sudden Shut, was performed at MusicNOW a year ago).

Yet The Lost Thought stands on its own very well. For one who came to composing fairly late, Clyne has a striking gift for creating a distinctive sonic landscape, mixing timbres and multihued textures within a concise and effective dramatic framework.

Despite the large forces, Clyne wields them in an often subtle and allusive way. The three singers perform the Dickinson texts, the stanzas of which alternate and become irregular. The music initially has a quaint, 19th-century feel to it, the piquant harpsichord somehow evoking the bourgeois parlor of the poet’s Amherst home.

Yet, as with Dickinson’s poem, the surface simplicity is slowly peeled away. The voices and layered sonorities convey the poet’s words yet gradually reflect the unspoken darker emotions underneath the texts, with fractured rhythms and edgy, undulating, shape-shifting sonorities.

Conductor Robert Moody did a first-class job with Clyne’s challenging music, eliciting an eloquent, strongly projected and deftly balanced performance. Sopranos Kathleen O’Brien Dietz and Kathryn Kamp and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth A. Grizzell performed the challenging vocal lines with flexible, atmospheric singing and the chamber ensemble provided yeoman support.