"Chicago chamber groups blaze original musical paths" -- In Transit: #undercoverhero in The Chicago Tribune October 25, 2011

Violinist Hilary Hahn, Chicago chamber groups, blaze original musical paths

Heard & Scene

John von Rhein Classical music critic

4:38 p.m. CDT, October 25, 2011



The last several days have brought a rewarding spate of chamber music performances to concert halls in downtown Chicago. The music ranged from J.S. Bach to the very latest new music. If these concerts had anything in common, it was the sense of performers reaching beyond the same-old, daring to take the art form to places scarcely imagined before.

Orchestra Hall on Sunday afternoon was packed with audience members clearly happy to hear what surprises one such performer, Hilary Hahn, had in store for them. She had plenty: The adventuresome young American violinist has embarked on a two-year project to commission, perform and record more than two dozen encore pieces from composers around the world. Contemporary composers have by and large shunned a form that once was the lifeblood of every fiddle virtuoso's repertory (think Jascha Heifetz). Hahn, bless her, is trying to redress the imbalance.

And so the artist, along with her formidable pianist, Valentina Lisitsa, devoted the bulk of her recital to 13 of the 27 new encores that have resulted from her creative enterprise, by composers from nine different countries. Hahn will debut the remaining pieces next year and record the complete set soon after. If the next batch of pieces is as high in quality and as brilliantly performed as the first, listeners have much to anticipate.

Most of the 13 brief pieces – which Hahn and Lisitsa interspersed with sonatas by Bach and Beethoven, and Brahms' "Sonatensatz" – were slow, quiet, lyrical, meditative and inward of expression. All were grounded in tonal harmony and relatively conservative in idiom. Indeed, Charles Ives' wispy, atonal, nostalgic "Largo" (1901), which the duo offered as a "real" encore at the end of their program, proved in some respects to be the most advanced music on the program.

The stylistic variety was remarkable, the musical yield high. Composers Max Richter, Lera Auerbach, Somei Satoh and Bun-Ching Lam contributed very spare, very beautiful pieces, the kind of music that would provide quiet contrast at the end of a standard violin recital. Delicately evocative in their own right were vignettes by Einojuhani Rautavaara, Gillian Whitehead and Tina Davidson.

Likewise, Jennifer Higdon, Paul Moravec, Nico Muhly and Avner Dorman found frisky, ear-catching ways to display the electric virtuosity Hahn commands without ever breaking a sweat. Higdon's "Echo Dash," a whirligig of rhythmic and contrapuntal energy, is one bravura romp I could easily imagine becoming a party piece on fiddle programs.

You can hear more of Hahn and Lisitsa on a wonderful disc of Ives' four violin sonatas, just released on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

Earlier on Sunday, I popped over to Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago to catch the first installment of a nine-part, season-long cycle of the complete Beethoven string quartets as performed by the Avalon Quartet. The initial program contrasted the first and last quartets Beethoven composed, the D Major of Opus 18 and the F Major, Opus 135.

From what I was able to hear of the performances, the cycle is off to a good start. The playing of the Avalon ensemble, which is based at Northern Illinois University, combined youthful spirit and mature musical insights. Each concert in the series will be followed by a gallery walk linking the music and works in the museum's collection. The programs continue monthly through June 3 and are free with museum admission.

Finally, a word about the Fifth House Ensemble, Chicago's self-styled "avant-chamber group," which began a new concert series, "In Transit," Monday at the Chicago Cultural Center.

You have to admire the sheer imaginative chutzpah these young performers bring to their envelope-pushing enterprise – using chopped-up chamber works as the basis for a series of original, multi-media playlets, each stand-alone segment linked to a theme that runs through the season. Previous years have brought new twists on Grimm fairy tales and graphic novels. This season it's social media and how lives are changed in the interactive digital age. Once again performances will be given free of charge at community venues in and around Chicago.

At the heart of "#undercoverhero," the first of four segments making up "In Transit," was a contemporary fable (by Rebekah Scallet, who wrote last year's "The Weaver's Tales"), played out in purportedly real-time blog entries and forum postings at the Internet site Comic Book Resources. These were projected onto screens at the sides of the small stage on which the seven instrumentalists played in various configurations. Robert Quinlan directed, and Jay Nolte did the whimsical drawings.

Our hero is a young schoolboy, Billy, a comic book and Web junkie who dotes on the exploits of his favorite superhero, the square-jawed Sentinel of Light. "What would the Sentinel do?," Billy wonders, after a schoolyard bully (whom he calls "meathead") torments him. Eventually he heeds the advice of fellow fans of the superhero and reaches an entente with the bully, who, Billy comes to realize, is "just as scared as everybody else."

All this played out on the screens in Preston Bradley Hall while ensemble members played movements of Mozart, Villa-Lobos, John Cage and John Elmquist cued to each shift of the story. (The percussive tappings of Cage's "Living Room Music" cleverly echoed the din of millions of fingers typing away at computer keyboards.) At the end, audience members were invited to tweet their hopes for the characters. "I hope Billy finds his light," wrote one.

The problem I had with the show was that the real-time writing on the smallish screens was sometimes hard to follow; Fifth House should rethink this aspect of its presentation. The musical readings also betrayed moments of problematic oboe and horn intonation.

Still, the interactive digital idea behind "In Transit" is worth developing, and I look forward to the three remaining segments of the series later this season at the Cultural Center and various Chicago Park District facilities.


Twitter @johnvonrhein

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