ICE and Dal Niente lead this season’s contemporary classical calendar

This week’s Reader includes our annual Fall Arts guide, and for me it’s always hard to choose what to cover in its music section––there’s so much that’s worthy. Both International Contemporary Ensemble (which started out in Chicago before relocating to New York) and Ensemble Dal Niente recently released details about their fantastic Chicago programs for the season, and I think they’re just as worthwhile as the events I picked for Fall Arts.

On Friday ICE begins its fall season in town with a free concert at Corbett vs. Dempsey: a harp recital by North Shore native Nuiko Wadden, performing Ernst Krenek’s Sonata for solo harp (1955) and new works for the instrument by Angélica Negron and Suzanne Farrin. In addition to being part of ICE, Wadden is principal harpist in the Pittsburgh opera and ballet orchestras and the Des Moines Metro Opera, but her involvement in the excellent trio Janus is most pertinent to new-music enthusiasts (Janus will perform in Chicago on February 9 at Lyon & Healy). Friday’s performance is free, but space is limited; reserve a spot by e-mailing rose@iceorg.org. In the video toward the bottom of the page you can check out Wadden performing the sixth movement of Kaija Saariaho’s ballet Maa, from a 2010 ICE performance at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

ICE will also continue its invaluable residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art with three great-looking concerts this season, including one dedicated to the music of John Cage and Pierre Boulez on October 6. The other performances will focus on new compositions by Carla Kihlstedt and Phyllis Chen (on February 16) and the world premiere of The Whisper Opera by David Lang (on May 31). There’s also a concert of new work by Latin American composers, including Chicago’s Marcos Balter, at the Museum of Contemporary Photography on December 8. Unfortunately, these are the only ICE events announced at this point; the group seems to be concentrating on expanding to other cities rather than remaining a strong presence in Chicago.

Chicago’s own Ensemble Dal Niente performed at the prestigious Darmstadt Music Festival in Germany this past summer and took home the Kranichstein Music Prize, and it seems that the group will be hitting the road more as well. In fact this season they’re booked in Chihuahua, Mexico, and Victoria, B.C., Canada. But most of their concerts are in town, and the programs have never been more exciting and ambitious. On November 16 the group will be joined by superb Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin for a concert of her music at Northwestern, and a February 28 concert at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts will feature the local premiere of In Vain by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas. But the Dal Niente is also presenting cutting-edge music in less tony surroundings, including a challenging program called Hard Music Hard Liquor at Mayne Stage on December 14, which includes pieces by Bryan Ferneyhough, Stefan Prins, Lee Hyla, György Kurtág, and Frank Zappa, and an Empty Bottle show in May that’s part of the club’s first new-music series. Dal Niente also hosts a benefit concert on Sun 9/16 at High Concept Laboratories featuring music by Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung.

Originally posted at the ChicagoReader.com.

Holding It Down: Premiere of a New Multimedia Work by Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd

The most recent collaboration of composer/pianist Vijay Iyer and poet Mike Ladd, entitled Holding It Down: The Veterans Dreams Project, received its world premiere last week (September 19-22) at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse. This multimedia work, epic in scope, yet poignant in its emotional nuance, is the result of three years of interviewing and collaborating with veterans of color from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holding It Down also marks the culmination of a trilogy of multimedia works by Iyer and Ladd, the others being Still Life with Commentator (2006) and In What Language (2003). Each of the three works examines a different aspect of post-9/11 America, but all three respond to the fear and injustice brought on by what Iyer and Ladd eloquently describe as the insidiously racialized Global War on Terror.”

Iyer’s through-composed score consisted mostly of highly sensitive and imaginative settings of the poetry of Ladd and two veterans, Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, punctuated by moments of virtuosic improvisation by Iyer and members of the ensemble. The poems (performed by their authors) were moving, powerfully honest artistic responses to war and the challenges of coping with trauma. Tim Brown’s video design contributed an evocative visual counterpoint, and the video interviews, conducted and edited by the project’s director, Patricia McGregor, were particularly well timed and interesting. The ensemble, which consisted of Iyer (piano, laptop), Guillermo E. Brown (vocals, electronics), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Okkyung Lee (cello), and Kassa Overall (percussion), provided an intricate, colorful, and at times surreal musical mindscape. One unforgettable moment was Overall’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful drum solo about two thirds of the way through the piece.

The presentation of a continuous 80-minute piece that brings combines music, poetry, video, and drama is no easy task. Careful attention must be given to the balance and interplay of the various media, and the dramatic flow and experiential continuity. Credit must be given to director Patricia McGregor, who forged the elements of this work into a seamless and deeply moving journey. With the exception of two moments when the balance between the ensemble and voices could have been handled better, the production was basically flawless.

With Holding It Down Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd have offered a model of how artists can present social commentary that is profound yet unsentimental; complex yet focused; provocative yet inviting. While so many multimedia projects these days hurt the genre by dilluting their own impact, Iyer and Ladd have created one in which each medium strengthens the whole. On December 1, 2012, these artists will appear again at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse for a new piece called Sleep Song, in which they will focus on the populace of nations affected by war. Collaborating artists for Sleep Song will include the Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Hussein, oudist Ahmet Mukhtar, and guitarist Serge Teyssot Gay.

Originally posted at Sequenza21.com.

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