by John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune, November 7, 2007.
The opening concert of MusicNOW’s 10th anniversary season celebrated a healthy mingling of classical, jazz, pop and other stylistic elements in works by the present generation of American and British composers. It made for an interesting if uneven exploration Monday night at the Harris Music and Dance Theater.
Americans Nico Muhly and Derek Johnson shared the program with Britons Mark Simpson and Mark-Anthony Turnage, who curated and hosted the concert along with his fellow Chicago Symphony composer-in-residence, Osvaldo Golijov.
As always, principal conductor Cliff Colnot led CSO musicians and guest players in clean, alert, vigorous performances that drew the audience into the essence of each piece. No composer could ask for more brilliant advocates.
The most noteworthy event was the premiere of Muhly’s “Step Team” (2007), a MusicNOW commission. Muhly, 26, looks like a sweet-faced teen but composes with real maturity and seemingly boundless self-assurance. He employs his nonet of musicians (strings, winds, brass and piano) in fractured rhythmic unisons before individual players or groups of players slow down or speed up against the basic pulse.
Muhly borrows heavily from Stravinsky’s off-kilter rhythms and the pulsing minimalist patterns of Philip Glass. He sets these impulses in irregular phrases and jumpy meters that cry out for dancing — as the piece unfolded, I kept imagining sleek bodies hurtling through space in manic lurches and spirals.
The composer’s ideas are stretched rather thin by the time his players are passing around a banal figure in running eighth-notes. Make no mistake, however: this young composer has something to say and a smart, sassy, in-your-face way of saying it. I look forward to hearing a lot more of his music.
Nothing else on the program proved quite as distinctive, although Septet by the 19-year-old Liverpool-born Simpson (whose second movement chugs along with an irresistibly jazzy punch) proved that the Beatles weren’t the only talented composers to come out of that city.
Violist Charles Pikler played Turnage’s brief “Eulogy” (2003) with a keen regard for its somber, long-lined ruminations.
Johnson’s “Frozen Light” (2004, revised 2007) piled layer upon layer of intricate rhythmic activity and harmonic clashes reminiscent of Elliott Carter, with a touch of heavy metal thrown in. The 15 players rose heroically to its many challenges, but the music’s sheer density made it tough to absorb on one hearing.