In Chicago, MusicNOW

Mason Bates

By Wynne Delacoma

Riccardo Muti is home in Italy being treated for a gastrointestinal ailment that befell him last Saturday and abruptly cut short his fall residency as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new music director. But his influence was palpable Monday night in the Harris Theater as the CSO opened a bracing new season of its MusicNOW contemporary chamber music series.

The MusicNOW programs are being organized this year by the orchestra’s newest composers in residence: Anna Clyne and Mason Bates. Muti chose the two—Clyne, a Brit; Bates, an American, both in their early 30s—in part because he wants Chicago audiences to hear what a younger generation of classically trained composers is up to. That Clyne and Bates, like many young composers, use electronic effects as readily as violins or kettle drums in their scores fazes him not in the least. What interests him, Muti has said, is well-crafted, deeply felt music. Monday’s program offered that and more.

Presented in a briskly paced 90 minutes without intermission, the evening offered Clyne’s “Steelworks,” from 2006, and Bates’s “Digital Loom,’’ a piece for organ and electronica from 2005. Also included were works by two composers born in Mexico, “Li Po’’(2009) for chamber orchestra, video and electronics, by 36-year-old Enrico Chapela, and “Bhairav’’(2000), a string quartet by Ana Lara, who turns 50 this year. “Vision Mantra” (2009) for violin, viola and cello, by Marcos Balter, completed the program. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1974, Balter now makes his home in Chicago.

The concert made abundantly clear one encouraging point about the current state of contemporary music. Younger composers are not using signal-processed speech or noise or video as a kind of intellectual argument. Nor are these effects awkwardly pasted on as a pretentious sign of hipness. Having grown up with electronically enhanced sound—thumping disco, pounding punk, scratchy hip-hop, lush film scores—it is bound to show up in their music, fully integrated like just another spicy percussion beat or pulsing rhythmic bass line.

Clyne’s “Steelworks’’ is a vivid evocation of America’s once mighty, long-gone industrial past. Lasting approximately 15 minutes, it mixes flute (Jennifer Gunn), bass clarinet (John Bruce Yeh) and percussion (Cynthia Yeh) with snippets of men’s voices and clamorous noise recorded in a Brooklyn steel mill. Against that soundscape, an accompanying video by artist Luke DuBois races across a huge screen at the rear of the stage. Using frames from a 1936 industrial film titled “Steel: A Symphony of Industry,” DuBois splits the screen into quarters, filling each with the same image. Black and white, frequently sepia, the pictures often linger, pulsing with the nervous energy of a stuck phonograph needle. Against the flute’s hectic flights and the bass clarinet’s groaning song, images of dingy mill buildings, roaring furnaces and fast-moving workers press themselves into our brains. Clyne shapes her material precisely, making “Steelworks’’ exhilarating rather than chaotic.

Bates’s “Digital Loom’’ with Canadian organist Isabelle Demers as the fearless soloist, has a cooler, more youthful vibe. Set in five movements, it opens with the kind of random pops and hisses beloved by John Cage. Those (electronic) sounds soon coalesce into a thicker, danceable backbeat that throbs through most of the 15-minute work. At one point, Demers’ rumbling, bouncing organ took on an air of calm piety, but the electronic thumps and pocks soon resumed and the party began anew. With shafts of red uplighting along the back wall, the shadowy stage looked like a hot new club.

The evening’s two works for small string ensembles were gems on a more intimate scale. In Balter’s “Vision Mantra,’’ violinist Baird Dodge, violist Li-Kuo Chang and cellist Jonathan Pegis sawed and rocked patiently through short, repetitive phrases. Their sound was raw-edged and rough, often brittle, but its cumulative effect was a deeply textured, mesmerizing meditation. Inspired by a Hindu raga, Lara’s “Bhairav’’ is similarly introspective. Performed by Dodge, violinist Rika Seko, violist Max Raimi and Pegis, its mood is icy and austere at times. The players seamlessly took turns spinning through Lara’s emphatic rhythms and Middle Eastern-flavored melodies.

Chapela’s “Li Po’’ was inspired by a Mexican poem about Li Po, an eighth-century Chinese poet. José Juan Tablada printed his own poetry in the shape of images from Li Po’s work, and Chapela’s piece included slides of the picture-shaped poems. Not only do we see outlines of the animals that Li Po describes; thanks to speakers scattered throughout the theater, their random growls, hisses and chirps erupted all around us. A chamber orchestra conducted by Cliff Colnot added its own full-bodied, high-spirited voice to the mix.