Contempo takes a walk on the wild side with 20th-century theatrical works

Chicago Classical Review

For the first program of its 52nd season, Contempo presented a not-so-contempo program, with the Talea Ensemble performing 20th-century instrumental-theater works Friday night at the Logan Center.

All four unorthodox hybrids on tap would have been called avant garde in their day, and only one of these musico-theatrical works has established a hold on the repertory. That item–by Peter Maxwell Davies–also happens to be by far the most successful piece, which says something about posterity’s musical judgment being more right than wrong.

The University of Chicago Presents event felt something like a quaint exhibition of what passed for cutting-edge arts experimentation a half-century or more ago. Yet with the versatile, New York-based Talea Ensemble delivering full-blooded, unapologetic advocacy for all four works, it proved an undeniably entertaining musical tour indeed.

The program led off with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Der kleine Harlekin (1976). The 12-minute work depicts various character aspects of the Harlequin figure, who is portrayed in music and movement by a solo clarinetist. Rane Moore proved a wonderfully versatile protagonist. Clad in space-age, black and white garb, Moore gamely tackled the unusual demands of this commedia dell’arte role. Talea’s clarinetist played Stockhausen’s spare lines and rapid bursts with unerring musicality, while providing percussion with foot stamping, in addition to dancing, reclining and, at one point, exiting and reentering the hall by the side door.

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