Ear Taxi/Chicago Latino Music festival and MusicNOW Review- An "embarassment of riches" : new music in Chicago

The incredible "Ear Taxi Festival" at The Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph ran from October 5 through October 10, 2016 joining with the 11th "Chicago Latino Music Festival" on October 7 and culminating in the joint Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) "MusicNOW"series opening concert on October 10. Ear Taxi presented Chicago with an unparalleled feast of new art music. With 300 musicians, 50 world premieres, 80 ensembles, important Festival partnerships, and significant sponsors, it bestowed on Chicago almost “an embarrassment of riches”.  The instant article serves only to cover the opening acts on the first and third nights and the MusicNOW concert.

Patrick Mulcahy; photo courtesy of Warren Johnson

Patricia Barber opened the Festival on October 5 with the multi-talented Patrick Mulcahy on acoustic bass presenting the world premiere of her 5 song cycle “Angels, Birds and I’. The American bandleader, songwriter, pianist and singer told the audience that the 5 songs, “Higher”, “Voyager”, “Surrender”, “The Opera Song” and “Muse” were all somehow “about singing and about singers”. Happily, the audience had been distributed the lyrics to the moody poetic pieces, and were able to follow her breathy chanteuse phrasing. The imagery was complex and sometimes obscure,  but Barber breezily explained their meaning in a number of audience asides.  At one point she noted that “people want to BE the singers, to take over for the singer”, and certainly the audience responded warmly and strongly to Barber. The songs were provocative, breathlessly intoned and sultry, the piano-playing expert, the bass accompaniment adding the right touch of depth and setting a mellow mood.

Patricia Barber; photo courtesy of Warren Johnson

On the third night of Ear Taxi, October 7, the program opened with NIU School of Music Quartet -in-residence, the world-class Avalon String Quartet performing three pieces in a joint presentation with the Chicago Latino Music Festival (CLMF) in the Harris Theater’s cube space. Avalon has been described as “an ensemble that invites you- ears, mind and spirit-into it’s music”. They began with  Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “Tenebrae”, 2002, and then presented a piece by each of the LMF co-curators. It has been written that Golijov has “a multicultural idiom that connects instantly to a wide range of audiences”. “Tenebrae” was earthy, spontaneous, and strongly emotive. Golijov has explained that the piece was written after witnessing “two contrasting realities in a short time”- the wave of violence in Israel, and the view from the planetarium in New York City. “Tenebrae” succeeds in revealing pain behind beauty.

The Avalon Quartet with Ear Taxi; photo courtesy of the Chicago Latino Music Festival

Gustavo Leone’s “String Quartet No. 4”, 2016, was written for both Avalon and for Cuarteto Q’Arte, performing in a unique international cultural exchange in Bogota’ as part of the CLMF. Q’Arte is known as ‘the recognition and outreach leader of projects of the Latin-American music patrimony”. The piece, 14 minutes long in a three-part single movement,  was lovely, lyrical, rich and unique, bursting with energy. The 3 sections, Leone has said, are "all in one mode-almost like one gesture" yet  the Avalon Quartet's intense phrasing revealed the different themes within the melody.

Quarteto Q'Arte; photo courtesy of the Chicago Latino Music Festival

Finally, Avalon presented Elbio Barilari’s “Musings on the Nature of Time”, 2011, which Barilari described as “a response  to Mozart’s Clarinet Quartet”- Barilari said he has always been “obsessed with the idea of time”. The Avalon Quartet joined by clarinetist Wagner Campos presented the beautiful and recognizable underlying piece  with it's newly overlaid "cover" graced with inventively changing moods and signatures, even including a bit of sexy salsa music and sprightly cha-cha-cha- lots of fun!

Chicago Latino Music Festival Co-Curators Gustavo Leone and Elbio Barilari; photo courtesy of Jose M. Osario

 It was fitting that on Monday, October 10, the CSO MusicNOW season opener was  the final event of Ear Taxi, whose co-curator (along with Stephen Burns) was the former CSO Mead Artist in Residence, Augusta Read Thomas, who was instrumental in creating the series, which presents works from new voices as well as established contemporary composers. A compelling continuity was emphasized when it was announced at the concert that two nights earlier, on October 8, 2016, Thomas had presented Conductor Cliff Colnot  the prestigious 2016 Ditson Conductor’s Award, which “honors conductors who have a distinguished record of performing and championing contemporary American music”.

Ear Taxi Festival co-curator Augusta Read Thomas; photo courtesy of Anthony Barwich

MusicNOW was hosted by current Composers-In-Residence Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek and included two MusicNOW commissioned world premieres as well as two Chicago premieres. The program made ample and effective use of video images reflected large behind the performers.

CSO and guest musicians perform Marc Mellitus' "Splinter"; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

The evening opened with Marc Mellits’ “Splinter”, 2014, a composition of surpassing beauty written for reed quintet consisting of 8 short movements named after trees. Mellits explained he had been influenced by Pink Floyd and Bach, and that reeds are “punchy”. The diverse movements worked together well, and ranged from forceful and humorous, through jazz-blues intonations, to the peaceful and harmonious.

CSO and guest musicians perform Sam Plita's "Tile Mosaic (after Chagall)'; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

 Next came bassoonist-composer-improviser Katherine Young’s “where the moss grows”, 2016, the second work in a cycle entitled “When Stranger Things Happen”. Young described it as a meditation on “things that get lost” and said the work was “not just sound “ but about “personal significance”. The work uses electronics, recorded sound  and amplification and is scored for violin, viola, cello, clarinet, bassoon, tuba, percussion and electric guitar. Sensitively and deftly conducted by Colnot, it included sighs, groans, dizzying water sounds and atonality. At times sounding like a sci-fi interlude, this most intriguing piece avoided both the fanciful and the exaggerated.

Ear Taxi co-curator Stephen Burns; photo courtesy of Warren Johnson

The third work was Sam Pluta’s “Tile Mosaic (after Chagall)”, 2010, for two percussionists and four-hand piano, performed by percussionists Cynthia Yeh and Eric Millstein with pianists Winston Choi and Kuang-Hao Huang. Pluta, a well-known composer of electronic and acoustic music told the audience that the work is “not filled with visceral intensity”- but it certainly moved this reviewer that way! Gentle and beautiful, It definitely evoked the playful, pastel-toned fantastic Chagall mosaic images reflected on the screen which were it’s inspiration- it was hypnotizing.

The evening and the Festival concluded with the wildly creative Manual Cinema performing Kyle Vegter’s “Monday or Tuesday”, 2016, a piece conceived for piano, percussion, cello, clarinet and bass clarinet, joined by double-screened visuals and shadow puppetry. Based on a poem by Virginia Woolf, whose iconic image is visually present along with scenes of roaring 20’s era London interspersed with the flight of  white herons, the mesmerizing multi-dimensional puppet opera truly took the audience on an inner journey.

CSO nd guest musicians with Manual Cinema perform "Monday or Tuesday" by Kyle Venter; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

As was described at the colloquium on day one of Ear Taxi, “the collaboration between composer and performer makes the music special”. This wonderful new Festival, the great recurrent  CLMF and Chicago’s wonderfully inspired and ongoing MusicNOW series all reflect the extraordinary talent in Chicago and their commitment to connect with, inspire and provoke the audience. It was said “Greater contact leads to greater appreciation”. In Chicago, we have grown to expect incredible performances.

Thanks to the CSO, Augusta Read Thomas of The University of Chicago, Stephen Burns of Fulcrum Point New Music Project,  Reba Cafarelli, Ear Taxi Festival Manager, Elbio Barilari of UIC, Professor Gustavo Leone of Loyola, The Harris Theater- and to the many collaborators, sponsers and artists who make these visions come true.




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