How slow can you go? Mark-Anthony Turnage apparently wanted to know the answer in the second concert he assembled for the Chicago Symphony's new-music series MusicNOW, which took place last night at the Harris Theater. It wasn't until midway through Louis Andriessen's Zilver that the pace picked up, and that was a good 20 minutes into the program. And it wasn't until Jo Kondo's Isthmus began more than half an hour into the concert that anything remotely zippy was heard. Textures that aimed for beguiling and works that attempted an East-West fusion were chosen by Turnage.* It's good to have goals.
Jonathan Cole's dirgelike Testament, dedicated to Sue Knussen, came first and was a fitting programming gesture. Knussen was the wife of Oliver Knussen, whose Requiem-Songs for Sue he led here last season. Working ever so slowly through duets of strings, trumpets and clarinets over a bed of interleaved instruments, Cole's gestures remain small and focused inward, only growing agitated near the end when the clarinets cut loose. The unchanging mezzo-forte reading led by Pierre-Andre Valade would become the evening's standard. (Cole said beforehand that the piece lasted 12 minutes, but at Valade's 10, it sounded oppressively inert.)
Zilver's relentless energy stirred things up a bit, but Valade's lack of detailed attention mucked it up. Flute, clarinet, violin and cello repeat a church refrain as the piano, vibraphone and marimba chime in with sharp chords. The chords come at faster and faster intervals, until they don't. But Valade didn't balance that bloody refrain! Andriessen's work—De Tijd and Waiting for Vermeer, among others—shows his careful construction, but it wasn't there last night.
Jo Kondo's two brief works Isthmus and An Elder's Hocket set a few Asian-sounding ideas free in a small ensemble, let them scurry around for three minutes, then turn them off. Development is an evil word to open-space advocates and to Kondo, apparently. They were cute, and were warmly received, but I couldn't help but think that Lou Harrison wrote better Japanese music.
Then came Melodien, after almost an hour. Such an inventive score, flashing violin harmonics heavenward and setting a muted tuba and bass off against each other. But Valade merely beat his way through it mechanically, showing no capacity for structure or ensemble clarity. Maybe being French isn't enough to conduct this repertoire.
*I originally wrote that Turnage programmed the concert with MusicNOW principal conductor Cliff Colnot. Colnot writes that the concert was solely programmed by Turnage. I interviewed Colnot last year for a story about MusicNOW's future, and while he said that he programmed one concert, he did not, I'm told, help program them all.