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MusicNOW’s 10th-season opener shines spotlight on four bright hopes for future

by Andrew Patner, The Chicago Sun-Times, November 7, 2007.

Hundreds at a new music concert Monday and standing room only Sunday for the Civic Orchestra. Young audiences, young performers, even young composers. What’s right with this picture?

Just about everything. While the media debate “the death of classical music” for the umpteenth time, curiosity and a desire to partake of excellence still manage to motivate plenty of people.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series launched its 10th season Monday at the Harris Theater with works by four composers, three of whom were under 30 when they wrote their pieces and one of whom just turned 19! Curator of the first three works, CSO composer-in-residence Mark-Anthony Turnage, led off with his own 2003 “Eulogy,” a wistful work for viola and eight supporting players. CSO principal Charles Pikler brought the same insight and lyrical voice to this contemporary meditation as he does to the masterworks normally on his music stand.

“Frozen Light” by Derek Johnson, 31, a Columbia College alum, puts a chamber orchestra of 15 through intriguing rhythmic paces with at least two metrical frames jointly containing its melodic and harmonic lines.

Both the Turnage, one of his most attractive works heard here to date, and the Johnson demonstrated the difficulty of determining an appropriate length for a work when traditional structures are abandoned. However, British teen Mark Simpson, 17 when he wrote his impressive two-movement “Septet,” recognized that brevity can provide a better showcase for craft.

Nico Muhly, 26, has been busting out all over with everything from a musical setting of the manual The Elements of Style to work for Bjork and Rufus Wainwright. His world premiere MusicNOW commission “Step Team” was, with the Simpson, a deserved audience hit, a propulsive and seductive rhythmic nonet punctuated by CSO bass trombone Charles Vernon. Muhly was inspired by stepping dance drills but he transformed this concept into language all his own: seductive, snappy, even, at the close, touching.

The whole program was under the highly skilled hands of conductor Cliff Colnot, who let each work make its own best case. He also prepared the Civic, the CSO’s extraordinary training orchestra, for its final rehearsals and performance Sunday with Bernard Haitink. In his short time as CSO principal conductor we have come to expect grace and authority from Haitink, but with the Civic’s young players, we have also seen his passion and a palpable devotion to moving the classical ship forward.

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