Day 4 of the Ear Taxi Festival (ETF) continued the excellence and excitement that had been ginned up in the previous days, but ended up in an especially spectacular way. Over half way through its six-day run, the ETF continued to showcase Chicago’s rich contemporary classical music scene, with 88 local composers presenting 55 world premieres played by over 350 local musicians and ensembles.
The first event I attended on Saturday was put on by NewMusicBox, a multimedia publication that has been covering contemporary music since 1999. In the Cube Space, which occupies the atrium in front of the Harris Theater’s auditorium, NewMusicBox Live featured videos and performances by Chicagoans.
Performing artist and composer Andy Costello started it off with a monologue of a litany of material that included a performance of each movement from John Cage’s 4:33, quotes from Gertrude Stein, and Prospero’s epilogue speech from Shakespeare’s Tempest. Nicole Mitchell then performed the flute using extended techniques that widen the variety of sounds that come from this instrument. She also told stories about her life in music as performer, composer, and African American woman. Mitchell was followed by Shulamit Ran, who told a moving story about finding Nellie Sachs’ book of poetry O the Chimneys in a used book store in New York and how that book influenced her. She then discussed the creation of Perfect Storm for solo viola, portions of which were performed by Doyle Armbrust of the Spektral Quartet.
Following NewMusicBox Live and a reception hosted by its publisher, New Music USA, the next concert was in the Harris Theater Auditorium. Every once in a while I hear a concert that is so good or otherwise noteworthy, it results in more than total satisfaction; it’s a peak experience creating a sense that art does not get any better. When this happens, I always feel extremely special and lucky to have been at the right place at the right time to have absorbed such perfection. Only a handful of concerts in my life have produced this effect. While the previous Ear Taxi Festival concerts had been thoroughly enjoyable, none had reached that special feeling, until the close of day 4.
Many things about this concert were memorable: the variety of music and instruments, the intricate staging, and, especially, the finale. It started by entering the auditorium and being confronted by a stage cluttered with percussive instruments of every description, bass drums, bongos, gourds, cymbals, vibraphones, xylophones, chimes, triangles, wind tubes, and other things completely new to me.
On this assemblage, Third Coast Percussion performed the world premiere of Reaction Yield. Inspired by the process synthetic chemists go through to develop new materials, this work is a collection of four movements with a unifying theme created by each of the four members of the ensemble. It starts quietly with a ball rolling around a stainless steel bowl, followed by triangles of varying sizes and other instruments making similar sounds. A distinctive melody emerges from the next sections of the work, played first on vibraphones and xylophones, and then on kalimbas and other finger instruments. It concludes with a return to the triangles. Choreography is provided by the performers moving around the stage, like scientists checking instruments in a lab.
After Reaction Yield, several percussion instruments on the front of the stage were removed, and the Spektral Quartet joined Third Coast Percussion toward the rear. They performed the Chicago premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals), the only octet ever written for string quartet and percussion. Selene is the lunar Goddess from Greek mythology, and this piece has a forward moving feel to it. Initially, the percussionists provided melody on the vibraphones, while ersatz playing on the strings provided percussion. Roles were reversed during brief passages of slower sustained notes. The whole effect builds in intensity until, with the coming of dawn, Selene flicks out suddenly like a match blowing out.
Another quick set change left the percussion in place but brought four harps to the front of stage left, where the Chicago Harp Quartet gave the world premiere of Plectra, by Carolyn O’Brien. This wonderful work exploits those characteristics unique to the harp: rapid glissandos and arpeggios, the overall wispy timber, and the ethereal quality of its notes. O’Brien creates percussive sounds with metal pickers and a shimmy that results from fingers running up and down the vertical strings without actually plucking them.
After the harps were whisked away, the six members of Arcomusical appeared on stage right, each holding a berimbau, an Afro-Brazilian instrument comprised of a single string on a long slivered bow with a hollowed gourd providing resonance. A berimbau produces two separate notes on the string and percussion on the gourd. Berimbaus can be tuned; six of them together create twelve tones. Arcomusical played two works that marvelously exploit these 12 tones. In Apenas Seja, Alexis C. Lamb explores the different musical textures that result from layering the two notes from each instrument. By contrast, Georg Beyer’s Berimbau Sextet No. 1 produces a melodic theme created by each player sequentially hitting a single note. It is like a bell choir, where each player, chiming a bell in each hand, is responsible for two distinct notes on the scale.
While the stage was being set up for the concert’s finale, the world premiere of Drew Baker’s NOX, local conductor Cliff Colnot Received the 2016 Ditson Conductor’s Award, a prize awarded by Columbia University. After Colnot had left the stage, I was puzzled because the program called for All Ear Taxi Festival Musicians to play, but the stage was not set up for a large ensemble, just the percussion remaining from Third Coast’s opening pieces, chairs for the Spektral Quartet, Berimbaus and gourds for Arcomusical, and a few other chairs. As the lights went down, I glanced around from my front-and-center seat and noticed that a symphonic band with music stands had lined up along the walls on each side of the auditorium and across the two horizontal aisles behind me. A conductor’s rostrum had been set up at the back of the stage facing the audience.
The auditorium and stage went completely dark except for low lights on the music stands and brilliant illumination of the conductor’s rostrum. Then, conductor Ben Bolter took the stage and pointed one finger to the musicians in the back of the stage, who began whispering vocal sounds. He then pointed to the musicians on the front of the stage, who joined in, then to the musicians along the right aisle of the auditorium, who also joined in, then to the musicians to the left, and finally to the musicians in the back of the hall. By the time he was done, the auditorium was abuzz with whispered vocalizations coming from all directions, as if the room were wired for quadrophonic sound.
After a few moments, Bolter then pointed two fingers to each group of musicians, causing volume levels to rise little by little as each successive section received the cue. By the time three fingers were pointed, players had shifted from vocals to their instruments making sounds that were initially quiet and consonant. The cues started to come more and more quickly, and, as more fingers were raised, the music got louder and louder and increasingly dissonant.
As things progressed, Bolter, standing in the only illuminated spot in the entire auditorium, was swinging his arms wildly, pointing in every direction, increasing excitement as the music got louder and louder. It felt like Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel had come alive and the end was finally upon us. When it came, the music was screeching, practically ear-splitting. Bolter slowly lowered the volume, and it all ended abruptly.
When silence was restored, I discovered I had been perspiring and my body had been trembling. In the few seconds before the thunderous applause, I was enveloped in a sense of total awe. I quickly looked around and noticed that everyone was in a state of wow and disbelief, as if we had all come to the same realization: we had just witnessed the extraordinary, greatness defined, truly one of a kind. We could only pray that, maybe, just maybe, we could live long enough to experience something this great once again.
The Ear Taxi Festival wraps up tonight, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Music Now performing at the Harris Theater at 7:00 pm. For more information, check out. http://eartaxifestival.com.