Claire Chase review: Flutes of fancy

Flute phenom's virtuosity invigorates a sometimes diffuse program of new music


Whatever you expect at a solo flute concert, chances are it’s not a chorus of coruscating sounds, all apparently kicked off, shaped and directed by one performer. But that’s what new music dynamo Claire Chase delivered at her appearance the third Thursday in February as part of Third Angle’s Studio Series at Zoomtopia. Granted, she had considerable electronic help, and afterwards she effusively praised her sound man on the scene, Levy Lorenzo. But lighting, staging and sound all joined for a seamless hour or so experience, and it was easy to focus on Chase’s mesmerizing music-generative dance at the center of it all.

Claire Chase performed at Portland's Zoomtopia. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Claire Chase performed at Portland’s Zoomtopia. Photo: Jacob Wade.

She has been commissioning new flute works for a few years now as part of Density 2036, a planned 22-year project named in honor of Density 21.5, a solo flute work written in 1936 by Edgard Varèse (and named after the physical property of the first platinum flute ever made). That venerable progenitor of contemporary solo flute works, which finished off the program, was not the least upstaged by the upstarts along the way. Its tightly constructed drama, only slightly enhanced by electronic reverb, was like an invigorating blast of fresh air after too long a time spent among myriad exotic sensual distractions.

It all began innocently enough. Marcos Balter’s 2013 work, alone, focused on a single overarching melodic line, somewhat in the manner of Density 21.5 but more relaxed, more wistful, almost folkish at times, while the accompanying percussion track added spice but stayed deferentially in the background. Chase switched to bass flute – an octave below the standard instrument – for Balter’s more ambitious Pessoa, which started with a dark, constricted version of the same mood, in what seemed an extended fantasia on Density 21.5’s first three notes. But we were soon jolted to attention with breathily percussive tone clusters, and the work eventually reached a climax full of echoing riffs before subsiding and ending with one final backward glance at Varèse. (Pessoa was originally written in 2013 for six bass flutes.)

Third Angle New Music brought flutist Claire Chase to Portland. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Third Angle New Music brought flutist Claire Chase to Portland. Photo: Jacob Wade.

George Lewis’s 2014 Emergent instantly broke up the mood by embedding music from the standard flute, in its upper register, inside an electronic track that seemed like a chorus of shrieking birds. Before long, however, it subsided, or maybe it emerged, into a more expansive feeling reminiscent of the atmosphere in the Balter works.

Similarly, Mario Diaz de León’s 2013 Luciform made a splash at first, giving Chase a chance to show off her hyper agility, but all too soon it reverted to atmospherics, this time in a kind of funeral dirge. Activity gradually increased towards a climactic ending, but it often seemed to flutter in place rather than moving forward purposefully. The accompanying electronic track was full of borrowings from 1950s and ‘60s sci-fi flicks, with swooping audio generators, scrabbling harpsichord passages and cheesily wobbling electronic organ chords, and seemed in an on-again, off-again relationship with the flute part.

Chinese-born composer Du Yun chose yet another way to grab our attention.  At the beginning of her 2014 work inspired by a Rumi poem, An Empty Garlic, she has Chase take on a giant tam-tam somewhat in the manner of a graffiti artist taking on a blank wall. As the resulting brassy prelude subsided, Chase began a series of plosive and sibilant verbalizations that morphed gradually into a series of bass flute riffs. But the piece then began a long process of deceleration. There were striking moments along the way, such as when a church organ (on the accompanying track) in full spate burst disconcertingly on the scene, or at quieter times, when Chase flawlessly sang in a duet with her flute line. But as it faded out at last, I wished that it had not been preceded by a concert’s worth of similarly paced works.

Through it all, Chase herself was a spellbinding performer, almost carrying us along her journey singlehandedly by sheer force of virtuosity and stage presence. Almost but not quite. Whether because each of the living composers is too in love with their own sound, too intent on showing off every step in their process, or otherwise driven by some inscrutable impulse, the atmosphere dominating their works and enhanced by Lorenzo’s soundscaping became, ultimately, soporific. The short, taut Varèse work that inspired Chase’s Density 2036 project was not only a welcome musical wake-up at the end of the concert; it should be a wake-up call to future contributing composers as well.

For all that, the concert stayed in my mind as I took in Third Angle’s next Zoomtopia production three weeks later. “Radio Happenings” was devoted to the music of John Cage and Morton Feldman, icons of mid 20th century American modernism, and its wildly diverse offerings were held together by often entertaining segments of an extended conversation between Cage and Feldman broadcast on New York radio station WBAI in 1966 and 1967.

Third Angle New Music performed John Cage's 'Imaginary Landscape #4.' Photo: Jacob Wade.

Third Angle New Music performed John Cage’s ‘Imaginary Landscape #4.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

The music mostly impressed with its asceticism, compared to Chase’s program. Some of that was due to smaller performance forces than would seem to be called for. A New York Philharmonic performance of Anton Webern’s  Symphony, Op. 21, occasioned Cage and Feldman’s first meeting, yet the Webern prelude performed here was a string trio that the composer himself had held back from publication during his lifetime. Cage’s Imaginary Landscape #4 was presented by four players manipulating radios, but the original score has 12 radios, with two players each, one for tuning and one for volume and tone. Feldman’s Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello lasts over an hour, but the shorter excerpt presented gave barely a taste of it. All these programming choices have sensible reasons behind them, but they strengthened the overall impression – whatever excitement its participants felt then, looking back from today the modernism of the mid 20th century seems like a spare, even harsh regime.

This was underscored, maybe unintentionally, by a Christian Wolff set for solo viola. Cage described Wolff as “the new Webern,” but this set was written in 1997, after both Cage and Feldman had died, and while edgy enough had a melodic warmth entirely foreign to both of them. The even more recent music Claire Chase presented was also rich in melody at times, as well as atmosphere. It had its faults, but distrust of beauty and pleasure wasn’t one of them.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. 

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