Review: Duo Diorama Highlighted Chicago Soundings on Tuesday Night

Duo Diorama played with passion on Tuesday night. Photo by Chad Johnston.

George Flynn’s long running series of contemporary classical music had its latest installment Tuesday evening when Duo Diorama performed music by Flynn and Diorama pianist Winston Choi. Flynn was the head of the music composition department at DePaul University. Since retiring from academia in 2010, he has been bringing the Chicago Soundings series to Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Lincoln Square. In doing so, he’s highlighted Chicago’s contemporary composers and performers in concerts several times a year.

Winston Choi, who is Associate Professor of Piano at Roosevelt University, performed on each of the three works at Tuesday night’s concert. For the second work, he was joined by his wife, violinist MingHuan Xu, who is also on the faculty at Roosevelt University. Together they form the piano and violin Duo Diorama, which has performed extensively in North America, South America, Asia, and Europe.

George Flynn hosts Chicago Soundings and composed two of the pieces performed on Tuesday night. Photo by Al Brandtner.

The concert opened with Choi performing solo in one of his own compositions, Fata Morgana, which emerged from improvisations inspired by of the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. As Choi explained before the performance, the work centers on the D note that forms the center of the modern piano keyboard. He created a piece where the right hand mirrors the left on either side of the D. In doing so, Ravel’s music is distorted with musical palindromes, reflections, and repetitions.

Fata Morgana opens with quiet, repeated D notes and suddenly breaks into rapid chords. These were then broken up by fluttering finger play, in which one hand mirrors what the other hand is playing–all centered on the D note. The piano’s sound is impacted by frog tape covering the bottom most and topmost strings; other strings were muffled by tuning dampers. The effect was especially striking when Choi pounded on both ends of the keyboard, which gave the sound of a woodpecker. Throughout this and the other pieces on the program, Choi’s playing was wonderful, combining clear fluidity with precise phrasing and dynamics.

Winston Choi performed superbly on Tuesday night. Photo by Patricia Willis.

For the next piece, both members of Duo Diorama took the stage for Seeking Serenity by George Flynn, who explained that he wrote the piece for this very Duo shortly before they were married in 2005. The piece opens with Xu carefully playing melodic runs on the violin while Choi played backing chords on the piano, both on the lower end of their instruments’ registers. It features calm moments broken up by riled turbulence, eventually ending with a lengthy spell of reverie ending, as the piece’s title promises, in serenity. Xu and Choi played off each other extremely well and had the cohesion one might expect from a married couple. It was the only time in the evening that Xu played, and it left this reviewer wanting more.

The second half of the concert was devoted to one work, Flynn’s turbulent American Icon. This long and involved piece has episodes of varying dynamics and intensity broken up by familiar refrains comprised of passages in the middle of the keyboard, followed by chords on top. Flynn himself describes the material as “frequently in a confrontational and contrasting manner,” and it certainly came off that way. It started with loud chords interspersed with rapid rills. There were sections of interwoven chords, with the hands moving up and down the keyboard, similar to a style found in Frederic Chopin. Quieter moments included wayward melodies in both hands far apart on the keyboard. Another section had fluttering phrases that got louder as they moved around. The work’s last section was an extended period of quiet reflection and absorbing trills. It ended with a reverse of what had been expected: notes at the top of the keyboard followed by chords at the bottom.

MingHuan Xu, gave a memorable performance on Tuesday night. Photo by Patricia Willis.

On the whole, American Icon was fascinating, but it seemed to drag a bit. This was no fault of Winston Choi, who performed with marvelous care and technique. The piece called for a cornucopia of piano capabilities, and Choi delivered every time.

The next concert is a performance of the keyboard music of Thomas Winthrop Stevens at Queen of Angels on Saturday, October 27, 7:30 pm. This program will feature Stevens’ music for solo piano and the world premiere of an organ suite written for and performed by Queen of Angels’ Music Director Kent Jager.


Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.