Ensemble Dal Niente Celebrates Latin America in Season-Closing Concert

Founded by a group of student composers at Northwestern University, Ensemble Dal Niente is now in its second decade, and their proficiency working together is evident in their cohesive live performances. At their season-ending concert on June 17 at Nichols Hall in Evanston, Ill., the contemporary music collective showcased its flexibility in a delightful and intriguing program of works by South American and Central American composers, including two world premieres.

The concert began with Brazilian composer and guitarist Paulo Raposo’s Sextet, crafting surging tonal waves — punctuated by Emma Hospelhorn’s crisp flute — that eventually grew into a seamless conversation between the versatile instrumentalists. Led by conductor Michael Lewanski, the group was also facilitated by the adept transitions of cellist Juan Horie. Bass clarinetist Katie Jimoh threaded everyone together with a reedy bass line, while Theo Ramsey’s violin added lyrical flair. The rumbling percussion of Kyle Flens and the mood shifts on piano by Mabel Kwan helped the work unfold excitedly until it vanished into thin air.

For the world premiere of Como una primera meditación (“As a first meditation”) by Colombian composer Melissa Vargas Franco, soprano Carrie Shaw stood at the center of the stage and accompanied herself with a Tibetan singing bowl. The bowl’s constant humming and occasional ringing contrasted with Shaw’s soft, intermittent vocalizations that eventually evolved into syllables. Her restraint and poise were admirable throughout this minimalist piece, leaving the audience captivated.

Ensemble Dal Niente -- Photo by Dan Nichols, Aphorism Studios

Ensemble Dal Niente — Photo by Dan Nichols, Aphorism Studios

Dal Niente harpist and executive director Ben Melsky briefly greeted the audience; his brevity was a refreshing change for new-music concerts, letting the music be fully absorbed without adding too much conversation in between, and allowing listeners to engage on their own terms and form their own impressions.

The haunting libres en el sonido presos en el sonido (“free in the sound prisoners in the sound”), by the late Argentinian composer and writer Graciela Paraskevaídis, opened with screeching high notes from the winds against a cello drone. Synchronized hammering in the cello and piano gave the effect of a foreboding siren. Kwan’s piano offered a careful, step-like transition, effectively walking the listener from scene to scene, while Ramsey’s violin continued with an eerie whistle.

Ear, Skin, Bone, Riddles, by Brazilian composer Marcos Balter, echoed repeated vocal phrases by librettist Michael Walsh, with sparkling passages from the violin and piano that matched the soprano. One of the strongest performances of the night, though, was Reencuentro, by the Mexican-British composer Hilda Paredes. Hospelhorn’s bass flute brought out rich textures, and Jimoh and Horie provided harmonics as the trio volleyed a multitude of sounds.

Ensemble Dal Niente -- Photo by Dan Nichols, Aphorism Studios

Ensemble Dal Niente — Photo by Dan Nichols, Aphorism Studios

The second world premiere was Canciones que el río murmura (“Songs that the river murmurs”) by Tomás Gueglio, a Chicago-based Argentine composer and Dal Niente’s managing director. A somber cycling melange, Canciones was embellished by pre-recorded sounds and performed by most of the members from Dal Niente. Like in the previous works with voice, there were times in which Shaw’s and Flens’ vocals were obscured by the instruments, but that might have been because of the acoustics at Nichols Hall, rather than owing to the composers’ orchestration.

The program provided a great deal of food for thought, inspiring the listener to want to learn more about each of these composers. Dal Niente proved once again that they play a crucial role in Chicago’s new music scene — never shying away from taking risks, and always introducing new audiences to the exciting music of living and contemporary classical composers.


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