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MusicNOW offers one of its best concerts in years

Cliff Colnot

Cliff Colnot

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Updated: January 6, 2013 9:54AM

In any artistic field, a commitment to the new is not easy. Without old reliables or even known works of modern times, and without big-name performers/creators to sell contemporary works, a presenter must rely on instinct, trust and skill to keep a view of today’s world in an art form before the public.

In its second decade, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series has worked out most of its format issues. The Harris Theater in Millennium Park has become its expected venue for concerts and post-performance receptions and new-music gabfests, fueled (and why not?) by free pizza and beer. The quality of the playing, anchored by a steady core of CSO members and rounded out by many fine area musicians, is consistently high, often matching that of full-time contemporary ensembles.

Structural concerns seem to have been settled, with too much fluidity giving way to a roughly one-hour intermissionless program featuring high quality film and video interviews with composers and performers, and live banter from Mead composers-in-residence Mason Bates and Anna Clyne — now kept to a tight, once-an-evening occurrence.

A balance, too, has been achieved between more extensive program notes available online, an attractive and sturdy program card handout and readable, well-designed screen projection notes, anchored by the attractive art and graphics of local artist Jason Brammer.

So content and programming choices remain the crapshoot. The season opener in late October, despite a fine conducting debut by Ontario-based (but Chicago resident) Edwin Outwater, managed to be dreary and disjointed in its selection of works. The second in this year’s series, performed Monday night at the Harris, was one of the best, tightest, and most challenging and invigorating MusicNOW concerts in years.

Conductor and ace pre­parator Cliff Colnot led all four pieces, even a string quartet by Bates, and that assured the precision and refinement by the excellent players. Each of the four works displayed a sense of inquistiveness and connectedness, and even thrilled the audience. From Steven Bryant’s brassy 1996 “Loose Id,” through the bouncy 2004 Bates entry “From Amber Frozen,” liveliness and creativity were infectious.

Columbia University graduate student Zosha Di Castri, who has been taking New York City by storm, did so as well here with her 2011 “Strange Matter” — a case of talk matching walk, with ideas of particle physics resulting in a work of mystical surprise.

Each concert this season has a work by a “name,” at least within the new music world. This time, it was the Russian-born Sofia Gubaidulina, now 81, and her “Labyrinth” (2011) for 12 cellos. With six of them from the CSO, and assistant principal Kenneth Olsen on the first chair, quality and projection was assured. Colnot’s keen understanding of the constant oscillations of pitch, rhythm and timbre allowed the complexity and the united nature of the 20-minute work to come out clearly. Let’s hope the dice roll as fortunately for MusicNOW’s winter and spring concerts.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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