Halfway through its six-day run, the Ear Taxi Festival (ETF) continues to showcase Chicago’s rich contemporary classical music scene, with 88 local composers presenting 54 world premieres played by over 350 local musicians and ensembles. Also on the program are events allowing people to get to know the new-music community and several multi-media installations around the city.
Having missed day two, I made the most of Friday, day 3, starting from the comforts of my home office. The EFT was the subject of WFMT’s monthly live broadcast of the PianoForte Salon Series, and WFMT host David Schwann was joined by EFT organizer Augusta Read Thomas. This month’s broadcast consisted of eight short pieces of contemporary classical music by established Chicago composers and up-and-comers. In Keeping with the festival’s practice, three of the pieces were world premieres.
The broadcast opened with Thomas’ own Triple Marionette, the first movement from her larger work for piano trio, Klee Musings. This work, described by Thomas as “Brahms crossed with bebop,” is comprised of short bursts of ascending or descending notes played in unison, staccato on piano and pizzicato on the strings. Different permutations represent different postures by each head in Klee’s painting. For this performance, Winston Choi on piano was joined by Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) Yuan-Qing Yu on violin and Kenneth Olsen on cello. Being first, Yu and Olsen were then able to dash up the street to the Symphony Center for their early afternoon CSO performance.
Up next was Shawn Okpebholo’s On a Poem by Miho Nonaka: Harvard Square for solo flute. Played by Jennie Brown, this piece requires an expanded playing technique, allowing the flute to sound almost like wind chimes. Like Bach, Okpebholo’s solo instrument interweaves several melodies together in one musical phrase.
Lee Hyla’s One Moe Time (Waltz for Eric), for piano solo, is the only work performed at the ETF by a Chicago composer who is longer living. Played by Daniel Pesca, the work offers a fascinating exercise to make out the waltz tempo from very disjointed spurts of rhythm.
Also on the program were world premieres of two songs inspired by Carl Sandberg poems performed by mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley and the Palomar ensemble’s piano trio. Seth Boustead’s Chicago Song opens with a lengthy, peaceful, and meditative introduction on the instruments. This vibe is continued by the vocals, which are practically sung in a monotone, while the instruments get animated: the vocals accompany the instruments, instead of the other way around. Lawrence Axelrod’s From the Shore offers a very different feel. While all the parts feature lyrical and rhythmic movement, the mezzo-soprano floats above the fray.
Moving on to solo piano, composer George Flynn performed the Third Salvage Meditation, the final movement from his larger work Salvage. A dark, eerie piece, it appropriately fulfills its role as denouement of a work dealing with World War II and Vietnam.
Following excerpts from Amy Wurtz’s Songs and Dances, with the composer on piano and Alyson Berger on cello, the broadcast ended with the Teeny Tango by Stacy Garrop, with Daniel Pesca returning to the piano. This delightful and charming work has all the makings of traditional tango with a regular key signature, except for a hint of dissonance in the background.
Later in the afternoon, I caught portions of the colloquium offered by long time jazz trombonist, composer, academic, and Chicago native George Lewis. The room was overflowing; at every turn attendance at the Ear Taxi Festival events has been great, and response has been very enthusiastic.
One of the more intimate performances took place in Cube Space, which is in the atrium outside the Harris Theater. For this concert the ETF teamed up with the 11th Annual Chicago Latino Music Festival, with the Avalon String Quartet (ASQ) playing several works by Latin American composers living in Chicago. A highlight was the US premiere of Gustavo Leone’s String Quartet No. 4. Leone, born in Argentina, is one of the two heads of the Latino Music Festival. His 4th String Quartet is an ingenious amalgam of two very simple musical motifs: a series of rapidly repeated notes played half or whole steps apart on the four instruments, and three notes that sometimes ascend, other times descend. The ASQ provided precise blend and perfect intonation.
The ASQ also performed a curious work by the other head of the Latino Music Festival, Elbio Barilari, who was born in Uruguay. His Musings on the Nature of Time is reminiscent of the Hollywood practice of remaking classic old movies with a modern-day spin. What would happen if musicians did the same thing and made changes that go beyond simply performing or covering an earlier famous work? Musings applies modern tonalities and rhythms to the basic framework and structure of the opening movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, which is a pinnacle artistic achievement with few rivals from any musical age. It would be like remaking Gone with the Wind or The Godfather. As so often happens in Hollywood, Musings doesn’t appeal to someone intimately familiar with the original work, but kudos to Barilari for giving it a try.
After a short intermission the Spektral Quartet took the stage inside the Harris Theater before an audience of well over 400 people for the world premiere of George Lewis’ String Quartet No. 1.5, Experiments in Living. The work opens with the players quietly bowing on the bridges of their instruments while their fingers creep slowly up and down their instruments’ finger boards. The effect was an eerie sound of sirens in the foggy distance, which permeated the entire work. In addition to bows, Experiments in Living calls on the players to play with knitting needles or chop sticks. Players also use mallets to create quiet, percussive effects on the back of their instruments.
The next piece was the world premiere of Quartet Movement by Samuel Adams, a resident composer of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This work, part of a larger work commissioned by the Spektral Quartet, is comprised of several short snippets, each of which start with a rapid upward sweep followed by a crashing major chord. Slowly changing sustained notes take over, creating overtones and other effects that, electronically amplified by microphones sitting on top of snare drums, overlay the music with raspy, electronic sounds. The effect is breathtaking, especially with the microphones producing the final sounds at the end.
Saturday, day 4 of the Ear Taxi Festival opens at noon with a musical marathon at the Chicago Cultural Center. Free concerts start every hour on the hour and run until 3:45 pm. At 5:00 pm, the ETF moves back to the Harris Theater for a full evening of concerts and receptions, starting with a program hosted by NewMusicBox, the contemporary online music journal. For the full schedule, check out Third Coast Review’s events page. The ETF runs through Monday, October 10. For more information, check out http://eartaxifestival.com.