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January 28, 2005

After the Blizzard, Pacifica and blackbird that Court

While the weekend's blizzard had largely subsided by the Sunday afternoon opening of Contempo's "Chicago Accent" program of contemporary chamber music, heavy coats nonetheless filled the racks of the University of Chicago's Court Theatre. Braving bitter winds and unplowed streets, an eager crowd turned out for an assortment of music ranging from 1930s modernism to the Chicago premiere of Kotoka Suzuki's Slipstream and the world premiere of John Austin's Celebrations. Despite a great variety of performers, instruments, and styles, the afternoon's five pieces combined to offer the audience a strange and challenging, yet ultimately satisfying afternoon of music.

Headlining the performance were the University's two groups-in-residence, the Pacifica String Quartet, and the more eclectic eighth blackbird sextet. The two groups only rarely performed as ensembles of four or six, however; they either combined with a host of other performers to form a chamber orchestra, or provided individual members, such as Molly Alicia Barth on flute, and Michael Maccaferri on clarinet, for solos and duets. Later in the performance, the two groups were joined by Israel-born piano virtuoso Abraham Stokman, who showcased his mastery on Austin's complex composition. Conductor Cliff Colnot brought this diverse ensemble together through the widely varying musical material. Adding to the musical experience, the composers of several of the works were in attendance, and briefly introduced their works.

The first half of the performance featured older music, though it sounded as new and modern as the second half's premieres. The concert opened with Ralph Shapey's Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Group, which began with booming drums and Maccaferri's almost-shrill clarinet. As the piece progressed, the clarinet led the other instruments into harmonic order, becoming at times almost jolly and dance-like in rhythm, before returning to the near-cacophony of the opening. Unfortunately, the circular progression of the piece, in which the middle movement influenced the beginning and end, was difficult to appreciate on the first hearing.

Continuing the performance was Marta Ptaszynska's Moon Flowers, introduced by the composer as an interpretation of the work of French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon. Nicholas Photinos's cello joined Lisa Kaplan's piano in a surreal, almost otherworldly cycle of sound, alternating long and flowing tones with cycles of staccato notes. Both performers employed non-standard musical techniques, with Kaplan at one point standing to pluck the strings of her instrument. Whether busy or tranquil, the music lent a cold and distant air to the performance, slowly fading to silence at its end.

Next was Ruth Seeger's String Quartet, which preserved its clean and fresh sound despite being the oldest and the most conventional of all the works performed. The piece was written for a traditional string quartet and, unlike the other works, was performed in four distinct movements. Nonetheless, it contained a great deal of variety, particularly in its second half, where an earlier collection of seemingly unrelated and overlapping themes coalesced into ordered play by all four instruments. This unity reached its peak in the fourth movement, in which the first violin was echoed by the other three instruments.

Following the brief intermission came Kotoka Suzuki's Slipstream, arguably the most avant-garde work of the afternoon. Blending Barth's flute performance with an array of recorded sounds electronically manipulated by Suzuki herself, this piece explored the character and wide tonal possibilities of the flute. Though she began by playing single notes, Barth soon progressed through sequences of notes to shrill overblows and rhythmic tapping of her instrument's valves. Meanwhile, Suzuki had placed speakers in front of and behind the audience, allowing her to add a spatial dimension to the interplay of live, recorded, and synthesized sound.

Ending the performance, John Austin's Celebrations was the most involved and challenging piece of the afternoon. While the piece was written for piano and chamber orchestra, Stokman's piano clearly dominated both the piece's dynamics and its treacherously dissonant harmonies. As Austin himself mentioned during his introduction, the piano was "first among equals," alternately setting up harmonies for the other instruments and departing on its own "tangents" before finally joining them in folksong-like unity. As the piece ended in a flourish of drums and the audience's thundering applause, it became clear that the afternoon's music was much like the landscape outside: initially cold, unfamiliar, and forbidding, but ultimately pure and eerily beautiful.

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