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"Northwestern Musicians in Millennium Park" Review-Zappa/Varèse Concert Rocks the Pritzker Pavilion

By Debra Davy

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On May 28, 2017, at The Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millenium Park, a rare and transporting concert of exceptionally intriguing music was presented by the musicians of Northwestern University’s Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music and enjoyed by many listeners in Chicago. “Virtually” narrated by Frank Zappa, a recognized avante garde genius of his day, the concert was comprised of 3 works of Zappa’s, (“Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat”, “Pedro’s Dowry”, and “G-Spot Tornado”) and another 3 pieces, (“Intégrales”,“Ionisation”, and Amériques”) by Edgard Varèse, an earlier innovator whose own work had a profound influence on Zappa.

Backdrop for concert, image of Frank Zappa courtesy of the Zappa Family; photo by Debra Davy

Three different groups of Northwestern University musicians and three conductors participated in the potent and lively outdoor presentation: Northwestern University's Contemporary Music EnsemblePercussion Ensemble and  Symphony Orchestra under the batons of Alan Pierson, Ben Bolter and Taichi Fukumura sent a wealth of absorbing music out over the crowd seated inside and on the lawn of The Pritzker Pavilion.

The audience outside at the Pritzker Pavilion

The warm, fervently intimate and humorously-toned voice of the inimitable Frank Zappa, captured on tape at the Palladium Rock Club in New York on April 17, 1981, when he introduced the orchestral works of Varèse, then performed by Joel Thome and The Orchestra of Our Time, served as a moving as well as a fitting accompaniment to this fine concert.

Northwestern Symphony Orchestra and Contemporary Music Ensemble brass section musicians

The Zappa pieces feature a plethora of musical styles, with a strong focus on percussion instrumentation, as well as jazz, blues, and, of course, rock and roll. They demonstrate the work of what has been called “one of the most creatively fertile minds in rock pushing relentlessly into new territory”. It is easy to see the influence and impact of Varèse’s work on Zappa; although one cannot say that it is by any means directly derivative. Varèse dreamed of a new kind of music, at a time before it was technically possible, and spent years “Creating a kind of proto-electronic music for live musicians”. Varèse experimented with conventional instruments and percussion to “Build great sound masses, unearthly harmonies and noise-based music”.  Zappa himself was one of the first owners of an early digital synthesizer, using it and other effects to transcend the limits of human sound.

Northwestern Symphony Orchestra and Contemporary Music Ensemble cellists

The enthusiastic yet reverently performed concert was an outpouring of powerful and positive sound. Pierson’s elegant, vital geometric control, his hands like sculpted birds; Bolter’s spontaneous zestfully-informed gestures, and Fukumura’s dramatic and forceful conducting led the musicians and thus the audience in an hour and a half of inspiration amid technical complexity- these were not easy pieces to perform!  This is music for young as well as sophisticated hearts and minds; the youthful yet accomplished musicians took Millenium Park on a joyful journey.

  About conductors Alan Pierson, Ben Bolter, and Taichi Fukimura

 Alan Pierson has been praised as "a dynamic conductor and musical visionary" by the New York Times, "a young conductor of monstrous skill" by Newsday, "gifted and electrifying" by the Boston Globe, and "one of the most exciting figures in new music today" by Fanfare. He is the artistic director and conductor of acclaimed ensemble "Alarm Will Sound", which has been called "the future of classical music" by the New York Times and "a sensational force" with "powerful ideas about how to renovate the concert experience" by the New Yorker. Pierson served as the artistic director and conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. The New York Times called Pierson's leadership at the Philharmonic "truly inspiring," and the New Yorker's Alex Ross described it as "remarkably innovative, perhaps even revolutionary."

Alan Pierson, conducting

 Ben Bolter made his orchestral debut with the National Symphony Orchestra at age 25, with The Washington Post praising his performance: “Bolter spotlighted the showiest aspects…and made it look easy”. As part of Chicago’s acclaimed Ear Taxi festival, his world premiere of Drew Baxter’s “NOX” was named Chicago’s Best Classical Music Performance of 2016 by The Third Coast Review. Bolter joined the Northwestern University Bienen School of Music faculty in 2014 as co-director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble and in 2015 was appointed the associate director of the Institute for New Music. He is a regular conductor and collaborator with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). He has worked with numerous other leading contemporary groups and has given world premieres by composers Marcos Balter, Clint Needham, Drew Baker, Matthew Peterson, and many more and has worked closely with major figures such as Steve Reich, John Luther Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, David Lang, Donnacha Dennehy and Andrew Norman.

Conductor Ben Bolter

 Taichi Fukumura is the Assistant Conductor of the Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble and Founding Musical Director of "Accomponietta". This month he will complete his Master ofMusic in orchestral conducting at Northwestern University, studying with Victor Yampolsky, Director of Orchestras. During his time as Associate Conductor of the Boston Civic Symphony, he was described in the Music Intelligencer as “having the ability to create a sumptuous sound world”.

The Northwestern Symphony Orchestra and Contemporary Music Ensemble at The Pritzker Pavilion

 Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Todd Rosenberg 

Published on Jun 02, 2017

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