Fonema Consort’s Mirrors II concert dazzled like the Swarovki crystal-studded images by their host, artist Patti Bartelstein, for a standing-room-only crowd at The Project Room in Chicago on Thursday, March 21, 2013. Fonema presented this second event of a two-part series featuring the music of Kaija Saariaho, Morton Feldman, and other composers, with a focus on the paired worlds of mirrors and dreams. Bartelstein’s The Project Room, a newly-opened multi-disciplinary gallery and performance space, was a thoroughly welcoming environment with its current exhibition “Out of Darkness Comes Light.” The players spun their entrancing webs of music in front of American artist Allison Svoboda’s Mandala, a collage in sumi-e ink and rice paper.
The most arresting piece of the evening was Saariaho’s From the Grammar of Dreams for soprano and mezzo-soprano, who, according to the excellent program notes by musicologist Etha Williams, Saariaho portrays as two facets of the same person. Setting fractured texts from Sylvia Plath’s poem Paralytic and novel The Bell Jar, Saariaho demands an a capella high-wire act from the singers. Soprano Nina Rosalind Dante burst out with high frantic notes, full of trills and angst. Mezzo Nathalie Colas accompanied with long flowing lines, seemingly calmer, but no less troubled. “I remember everything … a bad dream …” she sang; “… The starched, inaccessible breast …” Dante countered. In a second section, “… the story of the fig tree,” the singing became more speech-like, the internal dialogue more of an argument. The singers transitioned into a placid section of close harmony, then diverged into counterpoint. Panic returned, as they alternated moments of exhausted breathing and singing to a crescendo: “… so powerful,” Dante sang; “ … right there,” responded Colas. Suddenly, they dropped into light whispered mumbling, smiling at each other in wordless joy, ending with “… I smile.” Dante and Colas complement each other’s voices splendidly. Dante’s is a brilliant, powerful, Erste Gewachs Riesling from Germany’s Rheingau; Colas’ a deep, earthy, but never heavy Grand Cru Pinot Noir from Burgundy’s Cote d’Or.
The Mirrors II program also featured a brand new work, Drifting the Upper Layers (2012) for flute and bass flute by Chicago composer Scott Scharf. During an intermission conversation with fellow composer and Fonema Artistic Director Pablo Santiago Chin, Scharf noted that he did not set out to write a piece that evokes the ocean in any programmatic sense. But when it is played, that is precisely what he hears. This was a very peaceful, atmospheric piece with lots of gestural breathing and mouth popping. Beginning with the opening section of breathing/popping across their mouthpieces by flutist Dalia Chin and bass-flutist Michael Hoover, we heard sounds of the sea. Then the flute segued into eerily pitched notes, still punctuated by pops, and the bass flute soon followed. As they alternated between pitched sounds, pops, and blowing across the opening, they evoked the sound of a boat straining at its moorings to break free. In the final section, their playing steadily gained in volume and intensity until their every breath, in and out, was a proscribed musical gesture. They ended sounding like a seabird and a whale.
The balance of the program held many delights. Saariaho’s gorgeous Mirrors was enticingly played by flutist Chin and cellist Mira Luxion, who indeed mirrored each other’s sounds. Chin breathed in a fluttery manner as Luxion hit the bow on the strings in a matching rhythm. The only flaw was that it was way too short. We didn’t want it to end. The concert began with two works of contemporary French composer Pascal Dusapin sandwiched around Feldman’s Two Voices and Cello (1973). The Feldman was very quiet and quite simple in form. It unfolded slowly, in dream time, as Colas, Dante, and Luxion each laid out elongated lines in close harmony. The singers wordlessly intoned oohs, ohs, and ahs to haunting effect, sounding as if they were overtones from the muted cello. Luxion’s cello bowing consisted of graceful long strokes, occasionally interrupted with pizzicato, until the final section was full of expressive plucking with a very light hand.
Dusapin’s Shin’gyô for soprano and picolo (1981) sets Japanese text, a translation of the Buddhist Heart Sutra, with the key mirrored phrase “The body is exactly empty / emptiness is exactly the body.” Dante and flutist Chin started in very high register with a swirl of converging, diverging, and echoing. Dante dipped low in contrast and then they met again in a soar, Dante finishing in a breathy whisper. Dusapin’s Two Walking (Movements I, II, and IV) for two sopranos dates from 1993-94. It sets English text from Gertrude Stein’s A Lyrical Opera Made by Two, a moving, erotic work written for her lover, Alice B. Toklas. The music opened calmly with agitation building in short order. As the pace quickened, the music and narrative lines overlapped. “Kiss … kiss my lips … again,” they sang repeatedly, interspersed with cooing, hissing, and gasping passionate whispering. Dante’s soprano and Colas’ mezzo soprano voices melded beautifully to fill the entire gallery space.
Fonema Consort is one of the newer contemporary music ensembles on the Chicago scene. Formed in 2011 as Ensemble Vulpine Lupin by Dante, Pablo Chin, and composer Edward Hamel, their goal is to provide a collaborative space between emerging composers and performers that would foster their passion and skills in the performance of new music for voice and other instruments. They recently changed their name to highlight the importance of the voice, and more broadly the use of the mouth, in much of the music they make (fonema is the Spanish word for phoneme, which refers to the distinct units of sound in speech). Gauged by their performance in Mirrors II, we are likely to be hearing a lot more from Fonema Consort.