Saariaho and Gubaidulina works stand out in Contempo program

Chicago Classical Review

Why is it that music of great contemporary composers always sound individual while music of not-so-good contemporary composers always sound alike?

Such were one’s thoughts at the Contempo program “Five from afar” heard Sunday at the Logan Center. Performed by Ensemble Dal Niente, the Kontras Quartet and other participating musicians, the University of Chicago Presents event offered works of five women composers.

Sandschleifen (sand-grinding) by Isabel Mundry opened the afternoon and lived up to its name. Scored for a quartet of percussion, piano and string trio, the German composer’s 2003 work is a virtual acidic wine sampler of decades-old “new music” cliches: scraping strings, scurrying figures, jagged fragments, etc. Conductor Michael Lewanski led Dal Niente members in an acute performance with finely graded contributions by percussionist John Corkill, yet the ultimate impression was one of emphatic, directionless urgency.

Except for a pause and the visual and aural confirmation that Chaya Czernowin’s String Quartet was a different work, one would have thought the Israeli composer’s 1995 piece was a continuation of the Mundry. This disconnected melange of bow tapping, violent pizzicatos, scratchy string passages, and fast, high figurations virtually defines the arid academic school that was played out by the 1970s. The Kontras Quartet delivered an intense performance but if playing this committed can’t make a case for the music, I’m not sure a case can be made. Czernowin was in attendance and managed to make it to the stage for a bow before the polite applause ended.

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