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Chicago Classical Review: Akiho’s mesmerizing work the highlight of MusicNOW program

Chicago Classical Review
By Lawrence A. Johnson

The second MusicNOW program of the season served up one of the most compelling solo performances of the year, amid three other works that included a Mason Bates premiere.

akiho_h_webMusic for solo prepared piano seems to have gone the way of Nehru jackets over the last few decades—perhaps a victim of too many such works centered on mere sonic effects and gimmickry.

Monday night’s concert at the Harris Theater opened with Vick(i/y) by Andy Akiho. This remarkable 2008 work brings the prepared piano back to its roots, as an unorthodox tool to make music, not as a sound effects sampler or a quirky and “edgy” end in itself.

Inspired by two friends named Vicky, the work is palindromic in structure. Standard piano notes and prepared sounds are set in contrast, and the metallic chords and timbral washes seem to reflect Akiho’s background as a steel pan player. Spaced single notes in the piano toll and fade over the bristling, steel-brush counterpoint. The music grows faster and more aggressive at times but the overall expression is one of stark and calm simplicity.

Monday night’s performance by Winston Choi was mesmerizing. The pianist drew a remarkable, finely terraced array of hues and dynamics from the keyboard, prepared notes and the instrument’s strings—conjuring an atmosphere of rapt concentration and nobility with a hushed pointillist delicacy.

David Lang’s these broken wings was heard just this past summer at Ravinia by the work’s dedicatee ensemble, eighth blackbird. On Monday night, Lang’s offbeat sextet was played by blackbird flutist Tim Munro, Choi, and CSO members, percussionist Cynthia Yeh, violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, cellist Kenneth Olsen and clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom.

The performance was a well-played one with fine unity (Yu, Olsen, Bloom and Choi collaborate regularly as the Civitas Ensemble). The post-Minimalist drive of the outer movements went with fine vigor and nimble articulation by Choi. The central movement was eerie and effective with the sense of calm unease punctuated by the jarring crash of chains and other heavy objects dropped ad libitum by the players.