Impromptu Fest 2019 wrapped up this weekend with a series of concerts that showcased Chicago’s rich and vibrant contemporary art music scene. Hosted by New Music Chicago, the festival convened eight concerts with 16 Chicago ensembles performing new music by 22 Chicago composers spread over two weekends.
The setting was delightful. In addition to having excellent acoustics, the new Guarneri Hall on the third floor of 11 E. Adams has no delineation between stage and seats. It is an especially intimate venue allowing an unusual amount of interaction between performers and audience. Performers could explain the music to the audience, and conversations occasionally occurred.
Friday night’s concert opened with flautist Janice Misurell-Mitchell performing The Speaking Flute: Poems and Proclamations, which was made up of seven of her own compositions organized into four sub categories. Misurell-Mitchell offers a wonderful approach to flute performance and composition, combining poetry, music, and electronic media to create unique episodes representing various events taken from reality. She makes a large assortment of aural and percussive sounds from her flutes, but she does not just use her breath; she also uses her voice. Of all the wind and brass instruments, the flute is most amenable to combing sounds from both the instrument and vocal chords, and these sounds can be made simultaneously. She typically opens each work with spoken poetry, which she later repeats while simultaneously playing her flute. The affect can be startling, as it is so unexpected. It opens up a whole new vista for flute composition and performance.
Each of the seven pieces Misurell-Mitchell played were interesting, but a few really stood out. Sometimes the City is Silent represents in poetry and music the visual and aural sensations she experienced living on the 25th floor of a Greenwich Village hi-rise. She converted into musical notation the shapes of bridges and lights. She also replicated on flute and voice the city’s sounds heard from high above lower Manhattan. Like all urban areas, New York can be very noisy, but occasionally total silence occurs; she worked that in as well.
Misurell-Mitchell also draws inspiration from current events and established poets. Amendment Blues No. 1 juxtaposes the first amendment of the US constitution with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Spoken text is interspersed with sounds and vocalizations from the flute. The rhythm seems rather random until polka episodes break out. Blooz Man/Poet Woman is based on Regie Gibson’s the Blooz Man is I and Allen Ginsburg’s Howel. This piece especially illustrates the ways instrument and voice can combine to create different sounds and expressions. Motel … loneliness is based on William Burroughs Word, which had originally been part of Naked Lunch.
Misurell-Mitchell’s set ended with Uncommon Time, a duo for flute and frame drum, improvised by Bob Garrett. This piece explores the various percussive and overtone sounds that can come from a flute, with the drum offering an interesting contrast.
In keeping with Impromptu Fest’s double bill model, the second half of the concert featured the Naperville Chamber Players. They opened with performed Ad-Astra, a program of four astronomical and science themed works using five players in different arrangements. First up was Constellations for alto flute and marimba by Joe W. Moore, III. The four pieces that comprise this work were varied in sound and texture, requiring different playing styles from flautist Marie Bennett and percussionist Ben Wahlund. They showed excellent interaction and ensemble awareness.
The evening’s highlight was Nebula for solo cello by Chicago composer Mischa Zupko, a work that explores the intervals between two or more notes played backed and forth repeatedly, with silent pauses mixed in. Dynamic undulations build tension and suspense. Before her marvelous performance, cellist Dorothy Deen explained how she dealt with the large spans on the finger board that her small hands had to make. Those challenges seemed to have no impact on her performance, as Deen wonderfully captured the changes in feeling and mood. Sitting in the audience, Zupko seemed to be very pleased.
Composer and percussionist Ben Wahlund next played The Whimsical Nature of Small Particle Physics for snare drum and electronic, which resulted from his visits to the Fermi lab accelerator in Batavia, Illinois. He recorded the sounds that atoms make when they are smashed together to form the various quark particles. Over that soundtrack, he played on the snare drum a mixture of beats and drum rolls. Taking it all in, this reviewer was reminded of industrial music made by SPK and Einstruzende Neubauten in the early 1980s, which had similar sounds and rhythms.
The concert ended with a large piece, Double Concerto for Oboe and Bassoon, which composer Jenni Brandon wrote both for wind ensemble and piano/percussion backup. For this performance, Brandon modified it by substituting a cello for the bassoon. The Naperville Chamber players offered the quartet version, with Tricia Wlazlo on oboe, Michael Giuliani on piano, Ben Wahlund on percussion, and Dorothy Deen on cello.
The concerto is divided into six short movements representing different aspects of the Milky Way galaxy. The performance was riveting, with excellent back and forth between the performers. There were times, however, when the different timbers of the cello and oboe seemed in conflict. The original bassoon might have been better, or a violin being substituted for the oboe. These things aside, it was a very enjoyable end to an excellent evening.