Chamber Cartel: Wonderblock

I will probably never go to the Mammal Gallery again if it has been over 90°F during the day, but I’m glad that I suffered the heat for this evening’s Chamber Cartel concert. Titled “Wonderblock,” the program was fairly eclectic, with works by George Crumb, John Luther Adams, Franco Donatoni, Helmut Lachenmann, and Hans Thomalla. Overall, the performance was enjoyable, though the heat took its toll on my attention span by the end.

The program opened with Crumb’s “Mundus Canis” for guitar and percussion. Like much of Crumb’s work, it is atonal and full of jarring moments but somehow works really well. A homage to several of the dogs in his life, Crumb imbued the piece with a good sense of levity, going so far as to end the piece with the percussionist calling “Bad dog!” There were moments in it during which I felt like I was listening to cut-ups of a baroque piece. I found myself wishing that the guitar part were either higher in pitch and played on the mandolin or lower and played on a theorbo. Herron control over the myriad percussive instruments really stood out in the piece.

Taking a sharp turn towards the harmonious, the next piece was John Luther Adams’ “Dark Wind” for Bass Clarinet, Piano, Vibraphone, and Marimba. The piece is kind of dark and rumbling and the textures it creates sort of roll along like the swells of the ocean. There are moments of built up tension but it always lets go calmly and moves forward. I found the piano, played by O’Dell, to be the most expressive and interesting part of the piece. I have to admit, though, that I’ve never been much of a fan of J.L. Adams and this piece didn’t change my mind. It’s not that I don’t recognize the quality of his work, it’s just that it doesn’t speak to me. It’s like some people really like the mountains — I certainly appreciate their majesty but tire of them pretty quickly — whereas I prefer the deep mystery of the dark, rolling ocean.

Herron accurately described the next piece, Franco Donatoni’s “Bok,” when he called it a fun little piece. A duet for bass clarinet and percussion that clocks in under 2 minutes, the piece makes me think of children scurrying about on their way to do something fun that adults wish they could enjoy and then hiding away in a hidden “fort” and planning their next steps.

Next was another piece that I thought was fun, “Trio Fluido” by Helmut Lachenmann. Scored for Viola, Percussion, and Clarinet, listening to it felt like I was observing a game and if I could figure out the rules then I would be allowed to join in but, so far, only the violist, percussionist, and clarinetist have been clever enough to figure it out. Sounds seemed to be passed between the players, though not in the sense that Mozart might pass a theme about in one of his works. Sometimes it seemed like they were trying to keep the game going while being apart and it would slow down a bit, with notes being further apart, but then they’d come back together and it would pick right back up again. The piece was only around 15 minutes or so, but I have to admit that the heat made my attention start to wane about 2/3 of the way in. I’d love to hear it again sometime in the Autumn when I can pay more attention to it.

The concert concluded with Hans Thomalla’s “Wonderblock” for trumpet, trombone, cello, guitar, 2 percussionists, and piano. The ensemble made use of a conductor for this one. The composer played a lot with the textures of the sounds that could come from the instruments and created a rather intriguing soundscape. There were a lot of exceptionally quiet parts, some of which were rests and some of which were just extremely delicate playing. I’m not sure that this was a good venue for the piece because there was a lot of ambient noise and the process of tuning that out, particularly in the uncomfortable heat, resulted in me tuning out some of the percussion. There were also moments that I felt were not quite coherent and I’m not sure if it was just me, the nature of the composition, or the way it was being performed. Despite those shortcomings, I did enjoy the piece: it is another one that I’d love to hear when my brain is less broiled and I can focus more on it.

Overall, I was very pleased with both the program and the performance of this concert. Chamber Cartel continues to bring interesting contemporary works to Atlanta, the likes of which we’d otherwise have very few opportunities to hear. Hopefully there will come a time when they will get to bring these works to us in a nice, climate-controlled venue but, until then, it is worth braving the heat to hear them play.

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