MusicNOW Review – Stellar Bookends of Last Clyne/Bates Curated MusicNOW Concert

Anna Clyne and Mason Bates are ending their tenure as Mead Composers-in-Residence


Of the many marks on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during Anna Clyne’s and Mason Bates’ tenure as Mead Composers-in-Residence, arguably their curation of concerts introducing Chicago audiences to a wide array of new music in the MusicNOW series has had the greatest impact.  Go to one MusicNOW concert where your notions of what music can do is stretched in new directions and you’ll leave hungry for a return.  Sometimes electronica with pre-recorded sections, sometimes soloists, other times ensembles—Clyne and BatesMusicNOW concerts could reliably be counted on to poke music’s boundaries anew.  Inherently festive, the pizza, beer, and electronic music parties that always followed the performances seemed a fitting sequel.


This last Clyne/Bates MusicNOW performance proved to be no exception.  It was especially well-attended.  Perhaps because both the opener and close of this concert were so powerful it had even more of the energy jolt effect of a typical MusicNOW performance.  We got that Monday night infusion of uplift that feels like it will carry you forward for the coming week. 



Chicagoan Marc Mellits’ “Octet” (2010) was up first.  Imagine two string quartets playing as a solo ensemble with each instrument’s pair from the other quartet sometimes playing in sync and sometimes in counterpoint. 


“Octet” was inspired by the glorious Canadian Rockies landscape where Mellits had done a residency at the Banff Music Center.  Mellits explained in the video opener, “It was a brutal winter. Every morning I walked to the studio dealing with the cold.  There’s an aggressiveness to it, but also it’s about wildlife surviving..”


This piece both amazed and grabbed us with its pulsing opener moving up and down conjuring an image of one leaning forward to plow through a blizzard past snow drifts.  In the second movement we hear something akin to insects amidst strong winds.  This and the third movement evoke more of the shelter of the warm studio where Mellits worked.  In the fourth and final movement there is a return to the earlier themes, but then the long bows of the violin help us feel that we are at rest after a storm.


If you were coming to the concert a bit tired from your work day, Mellits’ composition was a musical espresso.  For some of us it was a compelling invitation to follow his work more closely, making note of his website.


Then came Winston Choi on piano playing Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Dichotomie” (2000).  This work is inspired by Tinguely sculptures and in his introduction to this piece Gerard McBurney commented that it requires a virtuoso performance. 



“Virtuoso” barely captures the demands on the pianist.  Some of us could see the music scrolling rapidly on Choi’s Ipad.  How he even followed it at such a pace seemed improbable, let alone his rapid fire runs up and down the keyboard.  Dazzling!


For those of us who have only heard John Zorn’s saxophone performances his work “Goetia” may have come somewhat as a surprise.  In the program notes Zorn speaks of the connection between the violin and Satanism.  This piece has lots of loud pizzicato in the higher notes and does at times sound demonic. 



Unlike most MusicNOW introductions, this video snippet focused on the performer’s take on the piece.  Violinist Yuan-Qing Yu shared that she is usually quite adept at sight reading but in this case the note juxtapositions were a challenge to master.  Yet, in the actual performance there was nothing that appeared to challenge Yu.  The music was so off the beaten path that it seemed to beg for a rewind and replay button.


The finale included two works by progressive jazz pianist, composer and Chicagoland native Myra Melford – “ The Large Ends the Way” (1995) and “The Whole Tree Gone” 2006, a title which refers to a tree being consumed by fire.   



When asked to explain the spiritual aspects of this music that she referred to in the introduction, Melford, who has studied meditation and spiritualism in India, explains, “The first piece is about being centered in movement and stillness.  When practicing aikido and martial arts it can feel violent and highly energetic.  There is a lot of movement and you are being attacked.  You have to figure out how to redirect the attacker’s energy.  At the same time this piece is about war, reflecting on the Vietnam War Memorial monument in DC which, though paying homage to the many who suffered in that violence, exudes a very peaceful feeling.  So  “The Large Ends the Way” comes from dealing with the juxtaposition of war an dpeace in both worldly and personal circumstances. 



“In ‘The Whole Tree Gone’, when I play that high energy music there is a kind of ecstasy for me.  It is an expression of passion and intense energy that I both experience in the world but also when I’m able to commune with something bigger than myself.  When I first heard Cecil Taylor--a jazz pianist who came to prominence in the 50’s and 60’s, a major innovator on the piano—I felt his love for jazz and how he developed his own style of playing, both a lyrical side and a high energy side.  He inspired me a lot, and when I listened to his music I got into a meditative state.  It’s like being in the eye of a storm.  The high energy music isn’t chaos or frenetic but rather this explosion of sound and feeling that happens around a still point.


“Also, when you go through a spiritual training it’s always about breaking down your ego.  It can be very uncomfortable and intense.  I spent quite a few years with a teacher of Indian philosophy that involved meditation and other practices that enabled you to come face to face with parts of your personality that hold you back from being an expansive person.  It can feel like you are burning up and almost like you are on fire.  That idea of the Eastern traditions of destroying ego in order to experience ecstasy and the feeling at being at one with the universe is what the spiritualism of this piece is about.  Meditation is only one tiny piece of that.”


A combination of notation and improvisation, the latter not that familiar to most of the CSO musicians who performed with Melford, these were dynamic high energy pieces that truly elated.  Listening gave a charge; watching Melford bounce on the piano bench added even more. 



This was a powerful ending to a great stint by Clyne and Bates.  They will be missed.  However, MusicNOW does continue with a 2015 /2016 season curated by the new Mead Composers-in-Residence, Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek.  For information or tickets call the CSO box office at 312 294 3000 or visit the CSO website




Photos:  Todd Rosenberg, unless otherwise indicated.

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