Of Pain and Pleasure

Dan Albertson

[January 2012.]

[With apologies to Mark André, this article in the “Of…” series is not about his music. In this case, a trio of autumnal concerts, more “pain” is displayed than “pleasure,” but such is the nature of music making in Chicago. For Romeo Talento, my constant companion, a consummate man of grace commensurate to restlessness.]

John CORIGLIANO: Stomp (2010)*. Kirsten BROBERG: That Time from the Waters of Time (2008)** & ****. Alejandro VIÑAO: Tumblers (1990)***. Paula MATTHUSEN: run on sentence of the pavement (2002)*****. Donnacha DENNEHY: To Herbert Brün (2001)** & ****. Carrie Henneman Shaw (S)**, Nigel Armstrong (vn)*, Yuan-Qing Yu (vn)***, Amy Briggs (pf)*****, Cynthia Yeh (marimba)***, MusicNOW Ensemble, Clifford Colnot (cond.)****. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Oct. 17, 2011 (

One could not have much hope in any event curated by Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, the talentless “artists,” if one must use that term, strangely rewarded with positions as composers-in-residence to the desperate Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The music was, with one exception, dreadful and inconsequential; the visual style was several stages below amateur; and the atmosphere was one of self-congratulatory hipsterdom, replete with electronic music assaulting concertgoers upon arrival or departure.

Stomp, imposed for the latest Tchaikovsky Competition, is yet another attempt to make a reductive version of vernacular music, one that wallowed in gimmickry and was painfully short of substance.

That Time, its text by Pablo Neruda manifestly sung in Spanish, despite what the projections led one to believe, was an interlude of real music, for sure a mistake from this team: a work of repose in a crazed milieu. The attention span of Bates and Clyne meant that what is a cycle of less than half-an-hour was reduced to a mere seven-minute “bleeding chunk,” sad in view of Tumblers, a work that seemed to stretch into infinity with its relentless monotony and dated electronics.

The title of run on sentence of the pavement suggests a music of pointlessness. At least in this sense, the music was not a disappointment. Poor Amy Briggs played with the inside of her piano for ten-plus minutes, echoed by recorded material. Ping-pong balls are decidedly 1960s, as Mauricio Kagel could have told Matthusen. Poor Herbert Brün, too, a man of varied talents given a wandering, cliché-ridden traversal of empty gestures, vocal and instrumental, by his erstwhile student Dennehy.

Performances were likely respectable, though one felt a sense of pity that people would need to shed so much time and energy to yield so little. The presentation, projected onto a screen that stayed illuminated, even during the pieces, looked worse than what a middle-school student with a modicum of imagination could achieve on his laptop at home, with an ugly font on a distracting background and banal notes that were, on one occasion, out of sequence. Bates and Clyne, eager to present themselves as environmentalists, boasted of the lack of a printed programme, while ignoring the obvious environmental impact of wasting so much electricity on drivel. The lights never should have been turned on for this event.

Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK: Hodie Christus natus est. John TAVERNER: Magnificat a 5. Robert WHYTE: Tota pulchra est. Arvo PÄRT: Magnificat (1989) and Nunc dimittis (2001). Hieronymus PRAETORIUS: Magnificat IV. Robert WHYTE: Regina cœli. Cristóbal de MORALES: Regina cœli. Benjamin BRITTEN, BARON BRITTEN OF ALDEBURGH: Hymn to the Virgin (1930-34). Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA: Magnificat for double chorus and Nunc dimittis. Johannes ECCARD: Magnificat (German). The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (dir.). Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, Dec. 9, 2011 (

The Tallis Scholars, here with ten singers, offered a needed antidote: Without staging and without a forced attempt to be relevant, the music communicated directly. Sure, a concert of unaccompanied music for chorus is ever a challenge, even with a generous intermission, but moments of forgivable rêverie aside, attention was mostly rapt. With the longest piece being 13 mins., the oft-ecstatic setting by Taverner, and the average piece lasting 5 mins., the impression of a parade was ineluctable, the presence of a Mag and Nunc at the close of each half serving as a useful anchor. The secular momentarily upstaged the sacred when Phillips broke off the Nunc by Pärt, to allow a siren in Hyde Park to fade.

After nigh four decades of existence, TTS has reached a point of stasis, yet one of admirable poise: The music is contoured to maximal meaning, encompassing several gradations of dynamics; the ensemble is minutely blended, individual personalities only rarely required to emerge. Despite so much to admire, one is left to wonder what a group of more assertive singers may make of this repertory: Would the music fold under the weight of these forward voices, or would new strata within the polyphony be revealed?

Julia WOLFE: Dig Deep (1995)*. Anthony CHEUNG: Enjamb, Infuse, Implode (2006)*. Aaron Jay KERNIS: L’Arte della Danssar (2011)* & **. Lee HYLA: The Dream of Innocent III (1987)***. Anna CLYNE: Within Her Arms for 15 strings (2008-09)* & ****. Carrie Henneman Shaw (S)**, Kenneth Olsen (vc)***, Amy Briggs (pf)***, Cynthia Yeh (perc)***, MusicNOW Ensemble, Cristian Macelaru (cond.)*, Hubbard St. Dance Chicago****. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Dec. 12, 2011 (

More inanity was offered in the second event in this series designed in theory to reveal the healthy state of contemporary music, yet serving more to show its sorry devolution. Pull the plug — soon.

Wolfe was redundant and vapid to a fault, Kernis bathed in the most rudimentary, most unattractive and least terpsichorean music that could be envisioned, Hyla conjured up dudgeon and forgot structure, and Clyne lingered in the turpitude of a weak theme for a quarter-hour, matched by Brownean motion from clueless dancers. Like Philip Glass, any notion of development is anathema for her. Cheung was represented unfairly by an early work, but even this score, with excessive accents for percussion distracting from the main discourse, showed that craft may have some place in the 21st century.

The presentation was atrocious, as before, and composers again spoke on film, then live, a needless duplication: The material was not repeated, true, but neither was anyone enlightened by stupid questions and composers fumbling to seem intelligent.