Review: Ear Taxi Festival Delivers Day Long Excellence Despite Glitches
Ear Taxi Festival’s day-long series of concerts began Thursday at the Kehrein Center for the Arts in the Austin neighborhood and continued on Friday on the campus of DePaul University. As intended, the festival has shone a bright light on Chicago’s immense contemporary classical music scene. This year’s festival of 600 performers does not include some of Chicago’s more established contemporary music artists who performed at the first festival in 2016. The younger performers have managed to perform wonderfully. The composers themselves were present for many works.
There have been technical hiccups. The Iivestream is excellent, but presenters have no control over viewers with variable wifi connections, like me. Moreover, sounds from construction outside my apartment could not be avoided, but, strangely, they sometimes benefited the sound. The Kehrein auditorium was plagued by lights going off and coming back on every few minutes. Also, the virtual program book accessible from eartaxifestival.com, when it worked, was hard to use.
Thursday’s emphasis on chamber music was accidental. A planned performance of the Chicago Arts and Music Project/DePaul Concert Orchestra fell through when the transportation company chartered to bring the orchestra to Kehrein Center cancelled on short notice due to a lack of bus drivers. Notwithstanding these and other challenges, the event was very enjoyable.
Opening Thursday’s action was Picosa, an ensemble that includes flutist and festival executive director Jennie Oh Brown. Their program included Mirage by Shulamit Ran and Meteore D’Inverno (Winter Meteors) by Picosa’s composer-in-residence Jonathon Kirk. This group uses a variable line-up for each piece. Fragments of a Distant Dream by Xavier Beteta, who conducted the work, featured soprano Jocelyn Zelasko backed up by a quintet.
Next, pianist Clare Longendyke followed up an excellent performance at the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert the previous day with an equally excellent performance. Some of Wednesday’s program was repeated, including Fantasie Negre No 4 in b-minor, by Florence Price, an African American composer who was a major presence in Chicago in the middle of the 20th century. Any performance of this woman’s work, even the same piece twice in two days, is worthy of attention.
I finally made it to the Kehrein Center, where Lisa Goethe-McGuinn used four flutes to show how performance technique has evolved. Unlike other wind instruments, flutes are played with an open mouth, allowing words, singing, and other verbal effects to accompany the traditional sounds formed by blowing into the pipe. A high point was Sometimes the City Silent by Chicago composer/flutist Janice Misurell-Mitchell, who was in the audience. The piece, which I have heard Misurell-Mitchell herself perform, documents the sounds she heard from the 25th floor window of the residence in New York.
Soprano Liz Pearse and soprano and mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Butcher from Quince Ensemble went next. Highlights of their performance were Meara O’Reilly’s Hockets I-II and Hockets III-IV, where the singers trade off parts of melodies. Then, in Bethany Younge’s Her Disappearance, Pearse and Butcher sang into long tubes, allowing a perfect blending of vibratos and vocal effects.
The Blue Violet Duo of Kate Carter on violin and Louise Chan on piano gave an excellent performance of Amos Gillespie’s Spin Off, which was the product of a larger work he had written. It is very reminiscent of French music from the turn of the 20th century, such as Debussy and Ravel, which, when asked, Gillespie acknowledged as a frame of reference. The short, four-movement work allowed wonderful interplay between violin and piano.
Returning home, I livestreamed The Michael Hall, Michael Delfin, and Megan Ihnen Trio. They opened with the world premiere a duo for piano and viola by Evan William. Devil in the Belfry, based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story of the same title, opens with a charming, bucolic tune on the piano, only to be interrupted by squeaks and abrasions on the viola. It is especially cool when they produce the effect of bells chiming. As the music progresses, jolly songs interrupt the dark atmosphere. Hall and Delfin offered a vivacious rendition.
Megan IIhnen joined Hall for the Chicago premiere of Song of the rattling pipes, a duo for viola and voice by Eric Malmquist, and Hall and Delfin performed Contrapose, an interesting work of scattered sounds by Osnat Netzer, a recent arrival to Chicago’s new music scene. They closed their set with Krakatoa, a reduction for piano of a viola concerto by Stacy Garrop. The sounds wonderfully build to eruptions, complete with tremors and rumbles that happen four times in the piece. It ends after a lengthy idyllic spell as the world comprehends what happened.
The evening ended with the KAIA String Quartet playing both Gustavo Leone’s and Shulamit Ran’s Quartet No. 3. The opening of Leone’s piece is a fugue on a lilting motif, which reappears in the other movements. KAIA players melded wonderfully as the theme was tossed around. Shulamit Ran’s powerful third quartet, “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory,” is a delightful work inspired by the death of artist Felix Nussbaum in Auschwitz in 1944. In four movements, Ran takes us through the emotions this artist felt as his world was crashing down during the Holocaust. KAIA approached it with excellent touch and emotion.
Friday’s festival shifted to the campus of DePaul University, starting with the DePaul Art Museum, where 5th Wave Collective offered a set that emphasized calm reflections and meditation. Their set included two string quartets. The first was Shulamit Ran’s Bach Shards. This piece has a quiet start that soon breaks into rapid melodic motifs traded between the instruments. Bach is less evident in this music than late Beethoven, where counterpoint is woven into everything. They then played Osnat Netzer’s Recapisize, which has a very pensive sound that captures a wonderful aural fabric.
Augusta Read Thomas’ Pilgrim Soul, a trio for two violins and English horn, creates a reflective aural palette. A soulful wail on English horn is soon joined by the violins playing backing chords in a drone-like fashion. This music is very characteristic of how Thomas can achieve meditative effects through atonal chords that resolve into peace.
5th Wave closed with a lively performance of Clarice Assad’s Synchronous, a quintet for oboe and string quartet that opens with tremolos on strings that sound muted but are not. A muffled tune on cello is soon joined by the others. A more rapid gait emerges, with the oboe leading while the strings answer with quiet tremolos. The second movement is a bit more sunny.
Moving to DePaul’s Holtschneider Performance Center, concerts were taking place simultaneously at Gannon Concert Hall and Allen Recital Hall. The DePaul Wind Ensemble offered up a rousing US premiere of George Lewis’ Big Shoulders, Sharp Elbows. Conducted by Erica Neidlinger, the performers all played their winds and horns while wearing masks. Inspired by the city of Chicago, this piece opens with a fanfare and continues with a collage of lengthy chords and percussion with lots of dynamic shifts. Eventually, the upper winds provide sharp bird calls and other sounds of nature.
Shortly thereafter, cellist Nick Photinos from Eighth Blackbird performed solo with electronica. He offered a program of meditative works. Kyung Mee Choi’s Inner Space opens with quiet strokes on electronic strings, soon joined by the cello. The blend of Photinos’ cello glissando mixed well with the electronica, creating a single tonal fabric. The world premiere of his piece Meditation, completed one week previously, was replete with contemplative melodies. Suzanna Hancock’s Everything in Bloom was the one work that went a bit up tempo.
Fulcrum Point New Music Project closed the afternoon’s performances at the Gannon Concert Hall. Headed by Stephen Burns, Fulcrum Point offers a platform for composers to experiment and create new works. This program was a continuation of their LatinX series that highlights composers from Latin America. Their set opened with Darlene Castro’s Desmoronamiento, performed by flutist Dalia Chin, accompanied by Castro’s electronics. Alison Attar on harp and Rika Seko on violin then played Jaromiluna, a multi-textured work by Ricardo Lorenz.
A high point was the world premiere of Nubes (Clouds) a two-movement work by Lupita Diaz-Donato with Wagner Campos on solo clarinet. Donato uses the clarinet’s warm sounds to recreate the meditative experience he had in the Peruvian Andes. Campos showed great feeling as he played it through his mask.
Winding up Fulcrum Point’s set was Book of Spells by Clarice Assad, a work in three chapters. It was performed by a sextet formed by Dalia Chin on flute, Ricardo Castañeda on oboe, Wagner Campos playing clarinets, Lisa Marie Kahn on harp, and Arturo Ziraldo on the viola and percussion. Fulcrum Point director Stephen Burns conducted. The first chapter “Love and Relationships: The Siren’s Seduction” is fun and frolicking, while the second, “Wealth and Prosperity: Spell to Summon Greed” is quiet and reflective. Optimistic energy emerges in chapter 3, “Health and Well-Being: A Spell for Global Healing,” which ends with a giddy tune.
The scene today shifts to the Logan Center for Performing Arts in Hyde Park, 915 E. 60th St. Sunday’s afternoon concerts are at the Epiphany Center for the Arts at 201 S. Ashland Ave. After dinner, things move to Constellation. The festival wraps up back at the Kehrein Center on Monday, October 4.
Detailed program information can be found at www.eartaxifestival.com.