University of Chicago Presents opened its 79th season with a one-two punch. A pair of concerts this past weekend, one Saturday night at the Logan Center and one Sunday afternoon at Mandel Hall, got the season off to an auspicious start.
Sunday afternoon, Oct. 2 was the kickoff for UCP’s Classic Concert Series, the longest running series in the performing arts group’s portfolio, concerts that feature music from the Classical period up to the present day. The opener featured Marina Piccinini on flute, Clarice Assad on piano and vocals, and Sérgio Assad (Clarice’s father) on guitar.
The concert unveiled a unique collection of music that blended classical compositions by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Claude Debussy with music infused with jazz, bossa nova and Brazilian pop.
Some of the music was familiar to classical music fans, such as “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” by Villa-Lobos, where he combines Brazilian folk and pop with the contrapuntal techniques of Bach. Originally written for soprano and eight cellos, this arrangement for flute and guitar was poignant and pretty, featuring sinuous sound from the flute and gorgeous detail from the guitar.
Piccinini described Debussy’s “Syrinx” as “the quintessential flute piece” and proceeded to offer a stunning performance that was both brooding and beautiful; exotic and airy melodies still floated in your mind even after the music had finished.
There were also intriguing arrangements of works by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, including an aria from the tango-infused opera “Maria de Buenos Aires” and the “Winter” section from his work “The Four Seasons”. Sérgio Assad’s own work “Circulo Mágico” is a beautiful guitar and flute duet played with great musicality and a lovely dash of magic.
This was an eye-opening and surprising concert, as so much of the music on the program was completely unfamiliar to me because of its jazz, folk, or pop origins. It might have been billed as a jazz-adjacent concert, or a world music concert. It exposed the audience to various pieces they might not have otherwise heard in a classical music setting.
Yet it seemed too wide-ranging and lacking in a cohesive center. Debussy seemed out of place in a collection of works highlighting South American music, particularly Brazilian. Vocal scatting by Clarice Assad, along with some beatboxing, was done well, but it didn’t hold my interest. Assad’s singing was hard to hear (in spite of the fact that she sang directly into a microphone), and the balance between the three performers was often awkward, making the mix of sound muddy when clarity would have been superior. There was a good deal of singing, but none of the texts were provided, so just what the words actually added was left a mystery.
The audience of about 200 (as estimated by a member of the UCP team) appeared very pleased with the performance, but it seemed a small turnout for an opening concert. Many classical music organizations are working to regain the audiences they had before the pandemic, and I have no doubt that UPC, too, is working diligently in this regard.
The night before on Oct. 1, the Logan Center was the site of this year’s first performance sponsored by the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, an independent university organization whose concerts appear in the UCP lineup. The CCCC is the home of the Grossman Ensemble, and those musicians were joined by about a dozen other players for a marvelous concert in tribute to British composers George Benjamin and Oliver Knussen.
The CCCC has a fantastic model of music making that puts at the center of the performance the chance for the players to really dig into the music - each performance has generous rehearsal time and a carefully selected conductor. The detail and clarity of the performance proved once again that this organization is at the forefront not only of the composition of new music, but also its successful introduction into the repertory. The conductor for this performance was Stefan Asbury, who knitted musicality and precision together fantastically.
Oliver Knussen’s “Ophelia Dances, Book I” was inspired by “Hamlet,” and the music has the same elusive qualities as the doomed Shakespearean character. The music thrilled with disarray, at times had a charming pixie-like quality, and the blustery horn contributed well to the idea of Ophelia’s confusion.
Gilles Vonsattel was the pianist for George Benjamin’s solo work “Shadowlines”. He played with striking tenderness in the quiet sections and his gentle caresses of the keyboard could turn almost instantly to snarling intensity. The contrasts between his silky legato and spikey staccato were exhilarating and he had a marvelous slow build of intensity in the final section of the work.
Knussen’s “Songs Without Voices” had a seemingly simple shimmering sound in the opening, but blossomed into fascinating and complex music and featured particularly lovely work from the oboe.
“At First Light” by Benjamin was inspired by the use of light in the oil painting “Norham Castle, Sunrise” by English painter J.M.W. Turner. Benjamin’s musical portrait of light is gripping and contains not only a musical depiction of sunrise, but also the concurrent sounds of the new day. There was warmth and crackle in this satisfying performance.
The only musical work not by the honored composers was “Dance Mobile (in memoriam Oliver Knussen)” by Augusta Read Thomas, the founder and director of the CCCC. The opening note had the kind of sizzle that immediately grabs you. The work has energy and the sense of a dancing sort of movement is clear. (Knussen passed away in 2018.)
A reception followed the concert and it was a joy to see the performers mix amongst the crowd, everyone nibbling beautifully presented tasty snacks while they continued to chew on the thought-provoking music of the concert.