Review: Music Now’s Inspiring Voices Has a Contemporary Beat

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Music Now hosted Inspiring Voices, an enjoyable evening of contemporary chamber music at Symphony Center on Monday night. On the program were five works by three living composers, two of whom were present. The performers were CSO musicians under the baton of Sameer Patel, who was making his CSO conducting debut.

Introducing everything was the CSO’s current Mead composer in residence, Jessie Montgomery. Opening and closing the concert were works by a former CSO Mead composer in residence, Osvaldo Golijov.

The word that best describes the evening is moody, and Golijov’s Mariel for cello and marimba set the stage wonderfully. He wrote in the notes that he sought to capture the “instant before grief, in which one learns of the sudden death of a friend who was full of life…”

This feeling is captured with Cynthia Yeh opening with quiet repetitive beats on the marimba, which Brant Taylor shortly overlayed with a soulful lament on the cello. As the piece progresses, the marimba and cello switch roles, with the cello backing up the marimba. The lush sounds on the cello and quiet beats on the marimba created a somber, yet hopeful air. Audience response was very favorable, as was that of Golijov, who waved in appreciation.

Matous Michal, Danny Lai, Andrea Casarrubios, and John Bruce Yeh. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Next on the program were two works by Spanish-born composer/cellist Andrea Casarrubios, who today lives in the United States. Montgomery brought her to the stage to discuss her pieces. First on the program was the world premiere of Afilador for clarinet and string trio inspired by the whistling sounds made by afiladors, ice cream truck drivers in the Spanish communities where she grew up. She demonstrated the chiflo whistle that they played.

In Afiliador, Casarrubios gave the chiflo sounds to the clarinet, and John Bruce Yeh reproduced those in a quartet that also included Matous Michal on violin, Danny Lai on viola, and Casarrubios herself on cello.

Cynthia Yeh and Andrea Casarrubios. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Cassarubios described how her second work on the program, Speechless, was inspired by Golijov’s Mariel. A duo for cellos and percussion, in the notes, Casarrubios described it as “a non-verbal discussion between the inner voices of one’s self.”

This conversation starts out with Cynthia Yeh bowing on a marimba while Casarrubios facing her across the stage, playing rapid and long notes on the cello. Midway through, Yeh moved to the vibraphone at stage center, and Casarrubios changed seats to a place nearby, both facing the audience, which Casarrubios characterized at achieving “equilibrium.” It was very effective.

The stage needed to be reset before each piece, with Bashra’v by Betty Olivero requiring seats and music stands for nine players and a conductor. During that lengthy time Montgomery invited Golijov to the stage to share about the influence Olivero had on him and the revisions that took place to the final work of the concert, his Tenebrae.  

In Bashra’v, Olivero explored traditional sounds from Arab-Jewish musical heritage. Comprising the ensemble was a string quartet of Matous Michal and Hermine Gagne on violin, Beatrice Chen on viola, and Paula Kosower on cello. Also onstage were keyboardist Daniel Schlosberg, who played piano and celeste, Jennifer Gunn on flute, Tage Larson on trumpet, John Bruce Yeh on clarinets, and Cynthia Yeh on percussion.

With Sameer Patel conducting, Bashra’v opened, playing frantic sounds on the viola. The rest of the orchestra soon joined in for very eerie and spooky sounds. As with other works on the program, moody was the overall affect.

The evening’s high point was Golijov’s string orchestra version of Tenebrae. Following another set change to accommodate 11 players, Patel conducted this piece that Golijov based on François Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbres (Lessons of Tenebrae). It was fascinating how the players interacted, with four of the principals acting as a string quartet, passing tremolos back and forth. New faces on the stage were violinists Gabriela Lara, Nancy Park, Mihaela Ionescu, and Yin Shen, cellist Haley Slaugh, and bassist Robert Kassinger.

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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.

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