The Chicago-based chamber group Fifth House Ensemble gave a performance at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art on March 9, which showcased three unique, relatively contemporary pieces, including the debut of a brand-new piece. The first composition performed was a short pieced, composed just in 2012 for the group, The Temptation of St. Anthony by New York-based composer John Zorn. The piece is supposed to depict the hard life and temptations faced by St. Anthony in the desert, and it is difficult music for the uninitiated to encounter. It is harsh, discordant, arrhythmic, and atonal, but what impressed me upon listening was the group's cohesion and the sheer virtuosity that is required to play such an unusual work. It is reminiscent of the music of Bartok or Ligeti, and while it possessed many qualities which are generally thought counter-intuitive to music, it was a fascinating listen. Particularly featured in the piece was the group's pianist, Jani Parsons, who described her shock at having to perform something that demanded things from her that she had never encountered. Nevertheless, she and her cohorts performed the work admirably.
The second piece pared the group down to its strings for a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 9, written in 1964. The piece was altered for the group's members, with the viola taking the part of the second violin and the bass taking the part of the cello. The piece is a tight, sometimes terrifying work, written during a period of great depression, paranoia, and exhaustion for the composer. As someone familiar with Shostakovich's symphonies, but having avoided the string quartets, I was amazed at how taut this work was compared to some of the symphonies, which contain much that, in my opinion, would be better excised. Another unique feature of this performance was that the music was accompanied by a series of animations by Chicago-based artist Adam Fotos, which depicts a faceless Shostakovich (though one whose eyes hide behind his trademark glasses) being chased through the depths of hell by white rats meant to represent the Soviet authorities, finally reaching a spaceship and being able to break away using the power of his music. It was an unexpected, unorthodox, but highly enjoyable addition to the program (and appropriate, I think, for a performance given at the Museum of Contemporary Art).
Finally, the ensemble gave the premiere of another piece by a New York-based composer who commissioned his work for the group, Caleb Burnhans, who was on hand to witness the debut of Excelsior, a work inspired by the 1960 skydive of Joseph Kittinger, a little-known feat that took place almost 20 miles above the ground and set several world records at the time. As with the Shostakovich quartet, the piece was accompanied by visual material, in this case film of Kittinger's jump. It is a haunting, minimalist work, that can be a bit repetitive at times, especially in the play of the strings, but the the reverse side of the coin is that it has a haunting, hypnotic quality. The piece also featured a vocal part for soprano, performed by the composer's wife, Martha Culver, for whom the piece was specifically written. It was a quite beautiful, dramatic composition, and it subtly captured the emotional highs and the anxieties produced by the audacious feat that inspired it. It was highly complex music, which the group's clarinetist, Jennifer Woodrum, insisted was “as difficult to play as Mozart” because of the precision it required.
Following the performance, the group returned to the stage, along with Burnhans and Fotos, to discuss their work. Many of their insights are mentioned above, and I am especially grateful that they shared them with the audience. Their enthusiasm and affinity for one another no doubt explains the group's cohesion and their fine execution of these difficult works.
Photo credits: Nathan Keay, MCA Chicago