Composer and University of Chicago professor Ralph Shapey created the Chicago Contemporary Players in 1964 as an ensemble dedicated to the performance of contemporary classical music. It was renamed Contempo in 2004. To kick off its 52nd season this past weekend, artistic director Marta Ptaszynska created something of a throw-back Friday with a program of four instrumental theater works written between 1940 and 1976, notably all by dead composers. The New York-based Talea Ensemble were the guest artists who expertly took on the wide-ranging styles of the music. “Der kleine Harlekin” (1976) is a short work by Karlheinz Stockhausen which brings to life the commedia dell’arte character. In Stockhausen’s piece, the trickster’s batte (or slapstick) is replaced by the soloist’s clarinet. Rane Moore’s Harlequin was decked out in a space-age costume reminiscent of “The Jetsons” with a light-weight skirt featuring an asymmetrical hemline that fluttered beautifully as she danced.
Moore combined deft playing, including clarity in the rapid-fire passages and muscular sound when the score called for loud toots, with light-footed movement. She integrated the pounding feet Stockhausen requires without losing her sense of the clarinet line. Her interpretation was gleeful and inventive (at one point she crawled under a piano, at another she left the stage and re-entered the hall via the seating aisle) without ever resorting to over-the-top wackiness.
Baritone Michael Weyandt joined members of the Talea Ensemble for a riveting account of “Eight Songs for a Mad King” by Peter Maxwell Davies. The music for this 1969 work is based on melodies which were played by a mechanical organ belonging to King George III, the insane monarch of the title. The King was believed to have used this instrument in his attempt to teach caged birds to sing. (Interestingly, Davies was made Master of the Queen’s Music late in his life.)