Your mother’s beating heart was the first sound you ever heard, and every day you live and breath, you create a constantly evolving rhythmic symphony between your pulse, your inhalation/exhalation, and your footsteps. Then of course, there is the voice, with all its lyrical possibilities. A kind of hard-wired resonance is hibernating within us, waiting to a reason to wake up. This past week, the alarm clock went off at Mayne Stage where Third Coast Percussion (TCP) – along with Tim Munro, the tremendously talented flutist of Eighth Blackbird (another stellar Chicago ensemble) – presented their concert “Bells and Whistles.”
It takes three primary ingredients in perfect ratios for a concert to go from great to excellent: talent, energy, and creativity. Hands down, each performer present was talented, and we are spoiled with talented musicians on a nearly nightly basis here in Chicago. Energy, however, that “capacity for vigorous activity” is not always as palpable as it was in the hands of Peter Martin, Owen Clayton Condon, Robert Dillon, David Skidmore, and the aforementioned Tim Munro. It is an especially vital component to the performance of 20th and 21st century music, which often lacks intrinsic harmonic propulsion and therefore requires more from the performer by way of interpretive conviction. Mayne Stage, in the vein of the alternative venues for “classical” music performances, was used fully as an antiphonal space throughout, and provided a dramatic opening for George Crumb’s Idyll for the Misbegotten. Percussion was placed on stage, and in opposing corners of the small balcony as Munro wandered from back to front and around, an apt alternative to Crumb’s ideal that the work be “heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August.”
Brilliantly, the ensemble elected to layer the movements of following two pieces between each other, served up like a layer cake composed of various flavors, experienced in a bite: John Fonville’s Music for Sarah, and John Cage’s Quartet. Fonville’s work was originally written as dance accompaniment, though, that was a little hard for me to picture, simply because the required performance aspect of pulling the flute “into pieces” and putting it “back together in compelling odd ways” was interesting visual in and of itself. There are many flute players in this world, but few with the perfect blend of beautiful tone, originality of idea, and sheer stage presence as Munro. Getting to hear him solo was a treat. Cage’s dismissal of harmony as a crucial musical element made for great percussion pieces. Quartet was his first, and typically leaves much of the performance decisions up to the players. TCP showed an astounding range of timbres and articulations that made you ponder, “Really, who needs harmony, anyway?”
Following intermission was the first of two world premieres on the program: Anthony Pateras’ Lost Compass for flute and percussion, commissioned from the composer by Munro and TCP. Described by Munro as an “aimless quest for a place that is never found,” the roles of flute and percussion appeared largely autonomous, as if they were engaged in separate conversations simultaneously. The tone of the alto flute was beautifully offset by the higher pitched tintinnabulum of the glass and ceramic objects struck by knitting needles (in lieu of “traditional” percussion instruments). The effect was like watching a movie where a lonely wanderer drifts through an empty town as bottles roll down the deserted streets.
A highlight of the evening was John Cage’s Aria, a work of “chance” that relies more on the creative interpretation of the performers than the score itself. The ensemble made use of the entire space, again, setting up amongst the audience with Munro meandering around the space and the stage. Here, Munro put aside his flute and took upon himself the role of vocalist – one that he conquered with aplomb. In the score, there are sections to be performed by instruments (or voice) of undetermined pitch. TCP elected to intersperse sounds from hairdryers, party favors, balloons, children’s toys, and the like. Juxtaposed against Munros vocals, the overall effect swayed brilliantly between the comedic and the melancholic.
Concluding the evening was the second world premiere, Fractalia, composed by TCP member Owen Clayton Condon. As the name suggests, it is a “sonic celebration of fractals...kaleidoscopic fractured melodies...created by passing a repeated figure through four players in different registers of the marimba.” It stood out as the most melodically driven work on the program and was performed with a level of precision and tightness that proved exactly why TCP is one of the best ensembles in the world.