Updated: May 15, 2012 9:22PM
The MusicNOW series is one of the most exciting things the Chicago Symphony Orchestra does. It’s also one of the most frustrating.
Over the years, a large, youthful and attentive audience has gravitated to these four new music programs at the Harris Theater each season. Free pizza and beer after the shows truly seem to be conversation enablers rather than the ticket-sale enticements they started out to be. Literally hundreds of people are in the Harris’ lobby going at it about music, composers and performance for at least an hour post-concert. Invited DJs provide a talk-party ambience.
At the same time, while musical execution by players mostly from the CSO is usually top-flight, presentation and format in the hall itself have become uneasy. Printed programs were jettisoned this year, replaced by flimsy pieces of paper, no bigger than a party flyer, with some website addresses on it. Painfully amateur videos (often with barely intelligible audio) replace both notes and the onstage interviews that were a founding pillar of the series’ concept. And this season, the repertoire selections by Mead composers-in-residence Mason Bates and Anna Clyne have seemed almost random.
The last installment of the 2011-12 season Monday night offered the usual hodgepodge of works by unconnected young composers with an extra layering of unneeded amplification and just unnecessary loudness. Why chamber pieces need to be amplified in the Harris I don’t know. And why pieces by Clyne (for live clarinet and electronic recording) and Ireland’s Irene Buckley needed to be played at ear-splitting volume might even be a legal matter.
The program opened with a refreshing change, “Sirens” (2009), an a cappella choral work by Bates, whom audiences know more for electro-acoustic pairings. But even here, only three of the piece’s six parts — settings of a Renaissance Italian sonnet, Heine’s “Die Lorelei” and words from the Odyssey — were offered. Conductor Duain Wolfe and the 12 members of the CSO Chorus were almost listless, compared to the tight and even haunting interpretation by the all-male Chanticleer, which commissioned the work.
Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Tres Homenajes: Compadrazgo” (2007), a piano quintet that celebrates Peruvian landscapes and people inspired by a Latin idea of unspoken camaraderie, had moments, particularly the central adagio painting the life of an ecologically fragile coastal island. Buckley’s all-electronic (was it merely a recording itself?) “Rotation of the earth” (2010) and Clyne’s “Rapture” (2005) have a magnetism in recorded versions that seemed lacking here, especially with the volume settings. Having Brooklyn digital artist Joshue Ott make sketches projected on an overhead screen during these two works didn’t help the argument for their live performance, though clarinet soloist John Bruce Yeh’s playing was heroic.
By the time Brooklyn-based Sean Shepherd’s sextet “Lumens” (2005) wrapped up the bill, my ears were exhausted and my head hurt. Which was a shame because the piece presented an intriguing blend of lyrical lines woven together in complex ways. Cliff Colnot was the ever-steady conducting hand.
Next year’s series will have a work by a major composer on each concert and the addition of some Chicago voices. Let’s hope that everyone can still have fun if the music and the audiences are treated more seriously as well.
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).