ICE Celebrates Peripatetic Genius John Zorn at MCA Chicago

Impressions from Row G

by Arlene and Larry Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)

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ICE came to Chicago to present a “John Zorn Retrospective” that might better have been titled “A 21st Century Portrait.” The concert Saturday, October 26, 2013, at MCA Chicago featured all recent work, save Zorn’s Canon for Stravinsky in memoriam, a work of less than a minute in length, written in 1972. ICE musicians Claire Chase, Joshua Rubin, Rebekah Heller, Erik Carlson, Kyle Armbrust, Michael Nicolas, Cory Smythe, Dan Lippel, and Tyshawn Sorey, in various combinations, attacked six Zorn compositions with joyous vigor, heightened by the presence of the man himself. The program showcased John’a hyperkinetic style in works constructed of brief concentrated episodes crackling with energy. John eschews stasis. He pounces on a musical concept, rapidly distills and fully exhausts it, then moves on to the next. 

The highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Baudelaires, inspired by three of the poet’s works: Paris SpleenFlowers of Evil, and Artificial Paradises. While the stage was being set, John spoke tellingly about his realization that composing, for him, is really about people. He puts notes on paper to give the musicians a platform form which to craft a musical performance. Baudelaires, for a mini-orchestra of wind section (flutes, bass clarinet, bassoon), string section (violin, viola and cello) and “percussion” (harpsichord and guitar), was conducted by David Fulmer. Zorn’s foundation in avant-garde jazz was evident in the structure, providing stand-out moments for each section and the individual players. The winds—Claire on bass flute, Josh on bass clarinet, Rebekah on bassoon—laid down a low, rumbling thread in Paris Spleen that was picked up by the strings, then whipped into a frenetic crescendo by the harpsichord and guitar. Flowers of Evil at first restored calm, then destabilized as Dan’s skittish guitar harmonics jumped to Claire’s flute, shifted into a wild winds-strings sextet, then returned the lead to guitar licks echoed in harpsichord. In Artificial Paradises, a lush flourish in the strings suddenly erupted and all hell broke loose in the full ensemble, as the center couldn’t hold.

John wrote the tempest, a masque (for flute, clarinet and percussion), an interpretation of Shakespeare’s final play, for ICE in 2012. In a sequence of manic high-speed scene changes, Claire on flute as Ariel, Miranda and the spirits is pitted against Josh on bass clarinet as Prospero, Caliban, and the Duke, and on clarinet as Stefano, Trinculo, and Ferdinand. Tyshawn employed two enormous bass drums and a drummer’s trap set to evoke the title storm and other dramatic settings for the confrontations. John’s terse, taut retelling left us wondering why the bard was so loquacious.

The balance of the program provided an apt character study of John's recent music. Steppenwolf (for madmen only! price of  admission: your mind) from 2012 is a solo tour-de-force for clarinet. Josh played now melodically, now dissonantly, repeating a fugal figure up and down the register with fierce aplomb. Occam’s Razor, canons, interludes and fantasies (2013) for cello and piano, was a Jeckyll-and-Hyde of 13 short canons. Cory and Michael deftly navigated from sections dense with notes at breakneck speed to spare movements at a snail’s pace. Walpurgisnacht, A Witches’ Sabbath in three movements for string trio quickly accelerated into a cockeyed, dissonant melody full of jerky gestures and spooky sounds. With mutes on for the final section, the sound became soft and ghostly, but the playing was no less furious.

Following a sustained standing ovation, John bounded back to the stage brandishing his alto  saxophone, Tyshawn at his side. “We’re gonna play a little east coast shit,” John said, “Newark meets Queens.” In one more brilliant distillation, they launched into a wild free-jazz jaunt that traded tart, tongue slapping riffs on the sax with explosive runs on the drum set, stopping just short of bringing the walls crashing down around them.

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