dal niente’s world premieres warm up a very cold night

By Dennis Polkow
Chicago Classical Review
Published: January 21, 2011

dal niente
dal niente

It says a lot about the excitement that ensemble dal niente has generated for the Chicago new music scene that on the coldest night of the year, there was a line to get into its Thursday evening Evanston concert, which contained no less than three world premieres.

The largest of these—by dal niente founding composer Kirsten Broberg—was With Reverence (in memoriam Gérard Grisey), a tribute to the innovative French composer who died in 1998 at the age of 52 from a ruptured aneurysm.

Considered one of the founders of the spectral school, Grisey liked to exploit the timbral possibilities of naturally occurring harmonics within collective instrumental combinations.

A homage to Grisey’s 1994-6 work Vortex Temporum, Broberg uses French horn overtones—wonderfully supplied by soloist Bernhard Scully—within a twelve-string soundscape punctuated by percussion that included cow bells and glockenspiel. The piece builds in dynamics and shifts from tentative whole tones to an extended climactic triumph of the tonal triad.

The other two world premieres were smaller solo pieces: Frederick Gifford’s Mobile 2010 for solo guitar, and Chris Fischer-Lochhead’s Water(l)illy for solo violin.

Gifford’s piece called for guitarist Jesse Langen to retune his instrument to allow for micotones and exploited the enormous range of the guitar in a virtuosic manner that called for finger stretches of enormous dexterity that Langen tossed off like child’s play.

Exploring the timbral properties of the guitar has usually required amplification, feedback and the like, but Gifford chose to exploit the natural properties of the acoustic guitar in some striking new and innovative ways.

Elliott Carter’s 1997 Shard for solo guitar almost sounded conventional juxtaposed w ith the Gifford piece, but Langen demonstrated how transparent and expressive Carter’s music can be in the right hands.

Fischer-Lochhead’s Water(l)illy is an appetizer of a piece, calling for violinist J. Austin Wullman to go from some of the uppermost harmonics of the instrument to its darker, almost viola-like timbres before trailing off.

Likewise, Colin Tucker’s Shards, which was being given its American premiere, called for cellist Chris Wild to start high and percussive, then play a bit of legato before some sudden stops and starts, never seeming to quite get off the ground before the piece abruptly came to an end.

Wild and Wulliman then performed an equally brief duet, David Reminick’s 2009 Juegos de Perros before the concert’s finale, György Ligeti’s 1968-9 groundbreaking Ramifications for small string orchestra, curiously the oldest piece of the evening.

Ramifications is a tricky piece to pull off with its wide dynamic palette and two groups of players slightly de-tuned one to the other, but conductor Michael Lewanski did an admirable job of holding things together and achieving the various effects that Ligeti was after.

Luciano Berio’s 1975 Chemins IV for oboe and strings opened the evening. Impressively though noisily rendered on soprano saxophone by Ryan Muncy, the music came across as if it were an avant-garde jazz solo piece with string accompaniment rather than a true ensemble piece, with Berio’s intended balances and timbral explorations only infrequently discernible.

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