#781: River in Strings

April 24th, 2017

Does an F-sharp sound more like the North Branch?

Does Bubbly Creek feel more like a cello or piccolo?

How do you compose Centennial Fountain?

I know. Because after Saturday, I know what the Chicago River sounds like.

One of the great joys of living in Chicago is getting to see the Chicago Composers Orchestra. It’s a combination passion project and side hustle for local symphonic performers. It’s still class and musicianship from 40 performers on folding chairs, but there’s a DIY edge to it.

It is an orchestra dedicated solely to pieces by living composers. That’s as rare and wonderful as the sentence sounds.

So an orchestra dedicated to living composers seems a natural pairing with the living members of the Chicago Composers’ Consortium. And a night at St. James Cathedral dedicated to music about and inspired by the city completes the trifecta perfectly.

All five orchestral pieces of the night were delightful, made exceptional by the artists statements telling what the notes connoted. You knew Timothy Ernest Johnson’s “From Jørgensen to Johnson” was a lovely composition, but the notes told how it weaved together the sadness and happiness of an immigrant family coming up through Logan Square. Martha Horst’s “Cloud Gate” constructed a musical palindrome of chord structures to match the symmetrical structure of the statue more commonly called “The Bean.”

Kyong Mee Choi created the Buckingham Fountain in “Water Bloom II.” And Laura Schwendinger’s “Oceanie La Mer” was very good too, but full confession I missed some of that for a much needed break after all that water music.

But “With the Flow” by Betsy Start had my heart.

It started with a nature theme, the chirping of birds. Early settlers in the form of bassoons interrupted the scene. The musical theme reversed itself in 1900, when we reversed the river’s flow. The heavy pollution of stockyard-infused Bubbly Creek became “Psycho” slashes of strings. It weaved in operatic themes by Insull’s Throne, Asian chords by Chinatown, the drone of a riverboat tour guide through a wobbly Charlie-Brown-adult trombone. A jig motif symbolized the yearly green dyeing of the river. A musical sting from “Go, Cubs Go” symbolized when it went blue.

I wasn’t transfixed. That would be an insult to this piece. It was human and warming, music to interact with rather than stand in gobsmacked awe of.

If I want to get someone to think about a river, I type the word “river.” I use facts and figures about length and depth. I might get clever and calling “whooshing” because that sounds ever so much slightly more like water than “flowing.”

But I’m no Betsy Start. I don’t know how to create a river in strings.

I’ll say this in praise. I’ll say this as a final comment.

Through cellos and bassoons, violins and not a single word, this felt like the Chicago River.

Hear more from the Chicago Composers Orchestra

In which I sit down for a beer and some punk with the founders

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