Talea Ensemble opens Contempo series with rare, exceptional program

Chicago Tribune

By Alan G. Artner

"The Young and the Brilliant,” Friday night’s exceptional concert at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, brought the New York-based Talea Ensemble to do what it does best, expose an audience to European music that is rarely surveyed on the American scene.

The program, which opened the 53rd season of the University of Chicago’s new music collective Contempo, was conceived in collaboration with Contempo’s adventurous Artistic Director Marta Ptaszynska and presented U.S. or Chicago premieres of very different works by five composers under age 40. Their countries of origin were Denmark, Poland, Slovenia, England and Czechoslovakia.

The result was engaging without descending to the easy-to-take entertainment spun out by many popular young American composers. It wholeheartedly opposed isolationism and cheered with its diversity.

The pieces were between four and 18 minutes in length. Those at the outer temporal limits — by, respectively, Nicolai Worsaae and Ondrej Adamek — included fragments of text and, in the case of the latter, supertitles resembling animated concrete poetry. All involved special playing techniques that extended the expressive range of the instruments. Sound was further transformed through the two great cliches of new music, amplification and the addition of electronic components.

The leanest, most desolate essays were excerpts, miniatures sparely daubed, from larger Worsaae pieces, with brief texts purely sung by soprano Alice Teyssier. “A Light Exists in Spring,” by Justyna Kowalska-Lason, brought such contained mournfulness into the open, closer to lyrical tragedy by means of an amplified string quartet relentlessly bending pitches to wail.

Vito Zuraj’s “Framed” took the prize for the most unexpected source of inspiration, tennis, creating an agitated bounciness that gained the force of threat through implacability. Christian Mason’s “Noctilucence” sought to evoke a rare type of cloud through widely spaced sonorities that quietly glistened until eventually erupting to grind forward with some vehemence.

The largest performing forces, numbering 11 players, came in Adamek’s concluding “Ca tourne ca bloque,” which first had a malfunctioning sound monitor that several minutes in caused conductor James Baker to stop, call for a technician and begin again. So much theatrical happens in the piece, verging on aural cartooning, that some in the audience took Baker’s announcement as part of the composition, reacting with chuckles. The work, particularly in contrast with the others, came across as overloaded, though its performance in the complete run-through was equally, head-spinningly virtuosic.

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