Let it be known: the Chicago Composers Orchestra has arrived. Now in their second season, they have gone from being a passionate collective to a galvanized force punching new energy into Chicago’s so called “new music” scene. Part of what is shaping them into one of the coolest new kids on the block is their total lack of agenda. They aren’t on some breathless crusade save “classical” music armed with neon lights and cocktails to prove it’s chic. They aren’t troubled by pretensions or seem to be gripped with any need to impress anybody. It’s simply a group of people bound together by the belief that new music is important—vital even—and that experiencing it is a fresh adventure. In the words of CCO co-founder and President Brian Baxter, when you come to a CCO show, “you can’t rely on 200 years of opinions.”
This brash idealism has blossomed into truly original and highly interesting orchestral programming. In the fall, CCO presented a show “among the foliage” of the Garfield Park Conservatory, complete with a piece of music featuring breaking glass in homage to the terrible and extensive damage done to the glass roof of the Conservatory in storms several weeks before their show. This past week, the CCO Winter Concert featured the Midwest premiere (and only second performance in the United States—the first was at Princeton University) of the new Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra by British composer, Gabriel Prokofiev.
Yes, Gabriel is the grandson of famed Russian composer Sergei, but don’t linger on that. It’s just a fact. Prokofiev’s talent requires no extraneous cachet. He is quietly (at least, in comparison to the incessant Internet clamor over his contemporaries like Missy Mazzoli, Nico Muhly, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s own composers in residence, Anna Clyne and Mason Bates) tending and cultivating a rich soil in which the future of music is extending deep roots. He, like the CCO, exhibits a true and pure love for music, eschewing glossy, trendy PR campaigns in favor of a calm assurance that the speaks for itself and needs only to be shared.
My friend and I arrived to the Ruth Page Theater early (armed with take-out from XOCO) and were thus able to take in the atmosphere of the center. It’s a great location for a concert like the CCO’s. Dance classes were letting out and there was a fantastic crush of concertgoers and dance students that bolstered the feeling of being somewhere were art comes to be practiced rather than observed. The concert hall itself was incredibly intimate (I’m guessing something like 120-140 people maximum), which made up for the slight acoustic deadness of the space.
Opening the show was the orchestral world premiere of De Rerum by Princeton grad student Elliot Cole. Picture something like the hipster Noam Chomsky of young composers and you begin to understand Cole, who “holds degrees in music and cognitive linguistics from Rice University,” as quoted from his bio. Unfortunately, due to technical problems (the ever present threat at new music concerts) the multimedia portion of his work had to be nixed, but the piece worked just fine without. Cole and Ben Hjertmann (a talented composer in his own right) spoke in rhythm the non-stop, tongue-twisting, acutely intellectual text (Ivy League rapping) over the orchestra whose score flexed back and forth between sweet postmodern jams, taking elements from all genres and laying a good beat underneath, to moments that sounded a little movie soundtrack. To me, those “movie moments” were rather disappointing, but only because I thought the rest of it was quite interesting, and Cole was obviously skilled enough to have come up with less familiar and more exotic content. I wish, too, that Cole and company had put more thought into the staging aspect. In my opinion the positioning of Cole and Hjertmann seemed lopsided, and when Cole pulled a Thomas Mars (of the band Phoenix) lying flat on his back during an orchestral interlude, it seemed a bit out of place and lacking in the flare required of rock star moves.
Following was a brief work by Brian Baxter called Roots Run Deep, inspired by his family’s ancestral Vermont farm and the recent acquisition of his great-grandfather’s violin and book of French hymns. In his program note, Baxter informed he was “drawn to the tranquil beauty of Gounod’s Le ciel visité la terre and Riga’s Christ adore” as he played through the hymns, and used them “as the melodic foundation” for his work that he hoped would “awaken the ‘spirit’ of the old violin.” The dissonant, eerie half-step motive in the strings effectively evoked the feeling of coming upon a place steeped in history, slowing rising from the mists of bygone eras. Sparse textures in the beginning spoke to Puritan New England. Without seeing the score, the piece appeared to build itself primarily through repetition. I would like to have heard more variation of some kind toward the end of the work, as the slow build to the climax struck my ear as a little too acerbic and strident. It must have been a fun piece to perform, however, as I constantly overheard the musicians talking in the lobby about how much they enjoyed playing the work. Perhaps, too, it would have translated better in a more reverberant hall where the tonalities would have softened, melded and swirled together with more ease.
Without intermission the program went right on into the Prokofiev. Joby Burgess, the insanely talented British percussionist, did the honors as soloist as we all got schooled in Creativity 101. If you think you have an idea of what a concerto for bass drum and orchestra might sound like, just know you are completely wrong and you don’t. Prokofiev brilliantly saw past everything on the surface and found the inner life of the instrument. We heard it moan, sing, wail, reverberate, clink, clank, and everything in-between. At one point Burgess held a string that had been poked and strung through one of the drum heads and bowed it like a bizarrely proportioned erhu. Another time he was on bended knee embracing each side of the drum (tilted horizontally) in order to strike and mute it simultaneously. The orchestral accompaniment ran the gamut from delightful melodies to slow groves; it was astonishing how well the orchestra and drum complimented each other. If you ever get a chance to see this performed live, block out the date and buy your tickets immediately.
Hearty congratulations to the volunteer musicians of the CCO for pulling off a complicated and difficult show on limited rehearsal time, and to conductor Matthew Kasper for holding it all together so well. Chicago, plan now to attend their Spring Concert on Friday, June 1 that will feature the North American premiere of Chen Yi’s Xian Shi for viola and orchestra with soloist Michael Hall.