Audiovisual jokes wear thin at MusicNOW opener

The less-is-more principle yet again proved its applicability in concerts of new classical music given around town over the past several days.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's MusicNOW series began its season Monday night with a multimedia happening (to revert to that beloved 1970s term) for film and a passel of instrumentalists scattered throughout the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. The previous evening, three players transfixed a Chicago Humanities Festival audience at the University of Chicago with the haunting, undersea sounds of George Crumb's "Voice of the Whale."

Guess which piece won out.

At least CSO resident composers Mason Bates and Anna Clyne deserve credit for introducing local audiences to the music of Benedict Mason, the 58-year-old British composer, currently living in Paris, whose works – some serious, some jokey, others drawing on film and spatial elements – have attracted attention in other parts of the classical music world. Would that they had chosen a more substantial calling-card than the mass freak-out performed on Monday.

I'd tell you the title but neither composer Mason's arch, unhelpful video introduction nor the program flyer could render the work's titular calligraphic symbol into meaningful English, since the name itself has no meaning. Program notes were similarly nonexistent. All that was left was the piece itself, an elaborate audiovisual collage of quasi-improvised high jinks, for film and live musicians.

The video is made up of thuddingly banal footage of Hong Kong street life, sliced, diced and tricked up with animated and abstract images. The live soundtrack stationed 19 instrumentalists and conductor Cristian Macelaru on stage and out in the hall. They dispensed a postmodernist aural stew that included kitschy chinoiserie but rarely bore any relation to the random, discontinuous images dancing across the video screen.

Along with standard strings, winds, brass and percussion, the scoring included six unusual wooden instruments that had been handcrafted by CSO bassist Roger Cline. At a solo juncture in the piece I heard them clacking away from the back of the theater, amplified to sound like stones being banged together. Or at least I thought I heard them. Mason's dry drollery makes it hard to tell much of what's going on here.

I found parts of the piece enjoyable and fun, such as a skyline montage with a cabbage leaf superimposed over it, or Mason's faux, 1920s-jazz-band riffs coordinated with the jerky rhythms of that section of the film. But mostly I found this the new-music equivalent of "Seinfeld": a show about nothing, post-John Cagean meta-theater for the YouTube generation. The work lasted 23 minutes but wore out its welcome well before. Monday's crowd gave it and the composer a warm reception. I'm waiting for the CSO to give us something by Mason that's more than oh-so-precious badinage.

I had a different problem with Donnacha Dennehy's "Stainless Staining" (2007), a 14-minute work for solo piano (the wondrous Amy Briggs) in communion with a soundtrack made up of samples of a piano retuned to produce a vast harmonic spectrum of some 100 overtones. The result is a relentlessly pounding, mechanical "phase" piece the likes of which New York's Bang on a Can gave us in the 1990s, and Steve Reich before that.

That left Swedish composer Anders Hillborg to provide the program's one fully satisfying piece, his "Vaporized Tivoli" (nifty title) of 2010. In just nine tightly packed minutes we experience a frenetic funhouse in sound, packed with whooping brass and all manner of manic rhythmic activity. The music turns serious before ending in a shrug of vibraphone. The 20 CSO players and guests brought its spiky and alluring textures splendidly to life. Once more, less trumped more.

The MusicNOW series continues Dec. 16, Feb. 3 and May 15 at the Harris Theater. The December and February concerts will hold the premieres of CSO-commissioned works by Bates and Clyne, respectively; 312-294-3000,

'Voice of the Whale'

Thanks to the Humanities Festival and the amazing contemporary music wizards of the International Contemporary Ensemble – ICE, for short – concertgoers were treated to a golden oldie by Crumb, distinguished musical godfather to many a young American composer, who will turn 84 on Thursday. He has come in for increased attention of late, following a period in the 1980s when his works received scant play, compared with the profusion of performances and recordings he received during the 1970s, when such seminal Crumb works as "Black Angels" and "Ancient Voices of Children" carried the American composer's banner far and wide.

One of the most durable of his scores is his avant-garde classic, "Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)," written in 1971, a repertory staple of most new music groups including ICE. As a matter of fact, three members of the group – founder and flutist Claire Chase, cellist Katinka Kleijn and pianist Jacob Greenberg – gave an absorbing account of the piece Sunday at the Logan Center for the Performing Arts, as part of Hyde Park Day at the 24th Humanities Festival.

"Vox Balaenae's" link to the festival theme, "Animal: What Makes Us Human," was obvious, given that the music was inspired by the singing of the humpback whale. Less obvious were the ways in which the performers were able to evoke the mysterious, otherworldly resonances of the whales' habitat. Some of those ways were explained in a post-concert discussion.

Per instructions in the score, the three musicians were amplified and wore half-masks, a gesture meant to symbolize nature dehumanized. Chase, a 2012 MacArthur Fellow, played bent pitches in addition to singing and whistling into her flute. Kleijn mimicked whale-song through eerie glissando chirps. Greenberg depicted rumbles and other environmental sounds by strumming, striking and muffling the piano strings.

The musicians' fidelity to Crumb's elaborately detailed markings heightened the sense of ritualistic music theater the composer had in mind. He could not have wanted a nicer birthday gift than Sunday's caring performance.

PianoFest at Roosevelt U.

Three members of the artist faculty at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts will explore several important areas of the solo piano repertory at the college's fifth annual PianoFest, Wednesday through Saturday in Roosevelt's Ganz Hall. All three recitals are free and open to the public.

Adam Neiman, CCPA's newest faculty artist, will launch this year's edition at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday with an all-Beethoven program that holds the "Diabelli" Variations and "Hammerklavier" Sonata.

Next up is pianist Meng-Chieh Liu, who will perform works of Brahms, including the "Handel Variations and Fugue," at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

Wael Farouk will bring the fest to a close while beginning a series of his own, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. His all-Rachmaninov program, including the "Corelli Variations" and Opus 32 Preludes, marks the start of a complete Rachmaninov cycle he will present at the university during the 2013-14 season.

Remaining recital dates for the Farouk/Rachmaninov series are Nov. 15, Feb. 22, March 7 and April 10. Ganz Hall is located at 430 S. Michigan Ave. For further information, call 312-341-2352 or visit

Twitter @jvonrhein

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