By Wynne Delacoma
From the Chicago Sun-Times - April 5, 2006
Sheer beauty of sound is not always a byproduct of contemporary chamber music performances, but it was front and center at the MusicNOW concert Monday night in Symphony Center.
Now in her ninth and final season as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's composer-in-residence, Augusta Read Thomas has been one of the guiding spirits behind the CSO's increasingly solid MusicNOW series. Her taste is eclectic. As she said in introductory remarks Monday night, "MusicNOW has no house style.''
But the concert's collection of mostly short works by German composer Detlev Glanert, English composers Oliver Knussen (who also conducted) and Luke Bedford as well as the world premiere of Thomas' own "Carillon Sky'' offered a singular glimpse into how some contemporary composers approach their craft. All four seemed to be fascinated with the very idea of instrumental sound in these works. Rarely have single notes from a solo violin, piano or tubular bells for that matter been given such space to blossom or sounded so luminous and rich.
At age 53, Knussen is one of Britain's leading composers, perhaps best known for his operatic setting of Maurice Sendak's children's tale Where the Wild Things Are. Monday's concert featured three of his works, including two delicious little musical morsels: "A Fragment of Ophelia's Last Dance'' for solo piano from 2004 and "Secret Psalm'' for solo violin from 2003, as well as the world premiere of a MusicNOW commission, a longer work titled "Requiem -- Songs for Sue'' for soprano and 15 instrumentalists.
Knussen is a miniaturist who can pack a lot of musical ideas into three-minute pieces for solo violin or piano or a 12-minute requiem. And in the hands of such dazzling MusicNOW soloists as pianist Amy Dissanayake and violinist Baird Dodge, even his shortest works leave a lingering impression.
"Ophelia's Last Dance'' had the airy grace and fluidity of a Debussy piano study, but its dreamy melodic flow refused to stay within its banks. Dissanayake's performance danced with amiable rhythms, but its melodic ideas persistently went awry. When she finally succumbed to a few brisk, traditional chords to close the piece, we couldn't help smiling.
Baird Dodge, CSO principal second violinist, was similarly fascinating in Knussen's more emphatic "Secret Psalm" for Solo Violin. His cleanly incised performance had a singing undercurrent ideally suited to Knussen's unpredictable but concise musical poetry.
Knussen used fragments of poems by Emily Dickinson, Antonio Machado, W.H. Auden and Rainer Maria Rilke in his requiem for his late wife Sue, who died three years ago. Accompanied by austere but beautifully colored murmurs and episodic outbursts from the small, varied ensemble, British soprano Claire Booth brought great warmth to Knussen's haunting texts and vocal line.
Glanert's densely packed "Secret Room:" Chamber Sonata No. 3 from 2002 launched Monday's concert with a gorgeously shaded study of ever-mounting tension. At first, its tiny calls and shrieks from individual instruments were widely spaced, with the sound of an excitable flute or a metallic violin hanging in the empty air. As the spaces became shorter, the tension mounted to a level of frantic alarm. The periodic tolling of a soft-edged bell alternated between calls for calm and wary vigilance.
Thomas' own world premiere, "Carillon Sky'' for Dodge's solo violin and small ensemble, was full of her typical sensitivity to musical color. Dodge's violin was sweet-toned but assertive, dancing in and out of conversation with the accompanying ensemble. Bedford's "5 Abstracts'' from 2001 was precisely plotted, offering indelibly vivid moments ranging from irritated rasps to the caress of a lingering violin line. In the final moments, individual instruments glowed and shifted, gaining color like a dark room being slowly illuminated.