For those of us who cherish live concerts that stretch our appreciation of music and even our most basic understanding of what music is, go attend a MusicNOW concert in Harris Theater.
The recent season premiere featured experimental works by three of Europe’s top composers: Anders Hillborg of Sweden; Donnacha Dennehy of Ireland; and Benedict Mason of England. The format included video messages broadcast from each composer in lieu of a traditional program. Their personalities were captured succinctly in these short video intros, setting the tones to hear the works that followed.
First up was Hillborg’s “Vaporized Tivoli”, played by the complete MusicNOW orchestra under the baton of Christian Macelaru. In the introductory video snippet Hillborg warns that the “Tivoli”, a European synonym for amusement park, ultimately takes on a darker side, perhaps inspired by a Ray Bradbury story he read many years ago where a nightmarish carnival arrives and menaces the town. Images of a carnival with kids overdosed on sugary treats and adrenaline charged running from one amusement to another is successfully conjured, and the post-sugar crash as well. At the conclusion we hear a timer alarm go off, marking the conclusion of a seeming fly by of a nine-minute piece.
“Stainless Staining” by Dennehy was performed by pianist Amy Briggs in concert with a backdrop soundtrack of piano samples, both normally keyed and also played inside the piano . This was a hypnotizing rhythmic piece, reportedly with 100 overtones based on a low G#. At one point Briggs also plays inside the piano and we hear something akin to the toy piano concerto introduced by ICE last spring.
Last but not least was a video and music collage about Hong Kong by Mason which, among many innovations, featured six new instruments made by CSO bass Roger Cline, a master carpenter, including: multiple slapstick, clapper, Matraca, enclosed ratchets, Triccaballacaa, branch rattles and Hyoshigi.
In his video introduction Benedict Mason asserts that it is difficult for music to describe a place and next thing we know one of the trademark waving Cat toys that one can see in Chinatowns worldwide, above and beyond Hong Kong, waves to us from the video setting the stage for one whimsy after another.
Most of the musicians are playing offstage and heard from open doors, except when they come out to ring bells set around the lower level of the theater or to play what sounded like castenets.
The various new instruments provided clapping, snapping and crack sounds. Meanwhile the video trek through exotic Hong Kong continued most humorously, with people walking in, out, in and out again from doors and heads turning and returning and so on.
Two cellos and a bass player sat in front centerstage, providing transitions with chimes or bells too as the score required. If Copeland gave us a picture of Appalachian Spring then for sure Mason told us that Hong Kong is one of the most happening places on earth.
Pre- and post-concert DJ sets regaled in the Harris Theater halls. Series curators Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, the CSO’s Mead Composers-in-Residence, also are making sure that pizza and beer receptions follow the concerts so all can mingle with musicians and composers.
For information on future MusicNOW concerts call 312-223-7114 or visit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra website.
Photos: Todd Rosenberg photography