The wind quintet The City of Tomorrow (TCOT) blew into the Windy City to perform a lively slate of contemporary music on Wednesday, October 24, 2012, at The Empty Bottle club in Chicago. This was the second concert in the inaugural season of the (Un)familiar Music Series at The Empty Bottle, curated by Doyle Armbrust (violist in the Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente). We experienced many “firsts” at this concert. We had never attended a live wind quintet performance, nor had we heard any Salonen pieces live, nor any of Maslanka’s music ever. Thanks to the virtuosic playing and witty mien of TCOT members, we came away fans in all respects.
TCOT members Elise Blatchford (flute), Andrew Nogal (oboe), Camila Barrientos Ossio (clarinet), Laura Miller (bassoon), and Leander Star (French horn) have chosen a rather rough musical row to hoe for themselves. The instrumentation of the classic wind quintet seems an unlikely combination, given the significant differences in technique and timbre. But something in that near conflict of voices makes purely magical sounds possible. And for several centuries, prominent composers have tackled the prickly thicket of the wind quintet to make wonderful music. That tradition continues into the present day, and TCOT is a fierce advocate of playing the wind quintet music of our time.
We’ve heard much of Salonen’s music in recorded form and have always found it fascinating, if a bit too cerebral, more something to admire than to love. But TCOT literally breathing life into Salonen’s Memoria has reset our thinking. This complex and many-layered piece is in part a eulogy to composer Luciano Berio, who had recently died, and it intentionally recalls Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, in which he mourned the death of Debussy. The players beautifully unleashed the sadness of the final chorale, lamenting the loss of Berio.
It wasn’t but a moment before TCOT reminded us why we should care about Berio with a furious attack on Berio’s dense and tricky Ricorrenze. In a bit of “musical chairs” the players got up and rearranged their positions to the alignment called for in the score, though they demurred from sitting in the prescribed “straight line facing the audience.” As soon as they dug into the piece, we knew it would have been impossible to play without some eye-contact to coordinate the timing of its spiky melodic fragments passing from player to player, intermixed with wild unison passages.
Fittingly, the next piece was David Lang’s Breathless. And breathless TCOT must have been after the pneumo-calisthenics of the Berio. Lang’s piece is minimalist in style with slow gradual evolution of the musical line and lots of consonance between the instruments, shifted by 1/16 note. The band shared that this has been a controversial piece with audiences, who seem to either love it or hate it. It is frightfully difficult to manage the slow unfolding of the themes without getting out of sync, and they are considering taking a break from it for awhile. We hope they don’t keep it out of rotation for long, as we found it a very impressive piece. We were fascinated hearing a minimalist piece, which usually would depend so much on constancy, played on all wind instruments. Because breathing is the essence of wind instrument playing, the overall effect was much airier and spacious and less unremittingly relentless. Nonetheless, TCOT’s playing of Breathless still achieved that trance-inducing effect we expected.
The final piece of the evening was David Maslanka’s Quintet for Winds #3. Maslanka is very nearly obsessed with the chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach and many of them serve as “jumping off points” in his compositions, as they do in this Quintet. Each if its three movements began with a fairly faithful quotation of a Bach chorale and then veered into new territory using the threads of that chorale to weave some entirely new material. We found this a throughly persuasive idea. The absolute highlight was Blatchford’s extended flute soliloquy, beautifully supported by her band mates, in the second movement. It began lush and serene, became more pastoral in tone, and then gamboled to a stirring finish.
The City of Tomorrow concert was a perfect second installment in the (Un)familiar Music Series, whose purpose, according to Armbrust, is “to strip away the veneer of classical chamber music and present compelling contemporary repertoire in a casual venue familiar to lovers of other exciting music.” We hope that more people will discover, and flock to, this adventurous series. Upcoming shows at The Empty Bottle include Chicago Q Ensemble on February 13th, 2013; Ensemble Dal Niente on May 22nd, 2013; and Access Contemporary Music on a date yet to be finalized.