Renee' Baker, Conductor
May 4, 2015
SUNYATA: TOWARDS ABSOLUTE EMPTINESS
May 3, 2015
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
On Sunday evening, Baker presided over a still more ambitious enterprise, leading her vast Chicago Modern Orchestra Project – including singers, dancers, concer...t choir and instrumentalists – in "Sunyata: Towards Absolute Emptiness." As its title suggests, "Sunyata" metaphorically traces a spiritual journey, its protagonists searching for peace and tranquillity amid the vicissitudes, conflicts and suffering of everyday life. Inspired by early Buddhist writings, Baker's score alternated between extremes: from harsh to ethereal, aggressive to sublime, gnarly to simple, questing to serene.
At its core stood a septet of singers performing in various combinations, their vocal lines interweaving in intricate yet lucid counterpoint. Gospel melody and free-flying jazz, hummable tunes and brilliant scat singing coursed through "Sunyata," the vocalists representing practically an orchestra unto themselves.
They shared the stage with a traditional chamber ensemble of strings and winds, plus the free improvisers of The Bridge (an ongoing collaboration of French and American musicians) and a duo of clad-in-white female dancers offering Eastern-inspired choreography. All the while, the young voices of the Pritzker College Prep Concert Choir chanted buoyantly from the back of the house, thereby placing the audience at the center of a swirl of sound and ideas.
Add to this Richard Norwood's evocative lighting design, which bathed the performers and stage props in shafts of white light, and you had about as close to a transcendental experience as mere mortals can provide in a 90-plus minute concert work.
Yes, there were passages that stretched on too long, moments (especially at the beginning) where one wasn't quite sure where "Sunyata" was headed and a series of concluding climaxes that blurred the closing pages of the work.
Yet there was no question that Baker had taken listeners on a spiritual odyssey via word, tone, image and gesture. As particular phrases bubbled up from the music-making – "true path of righteousness," "finding my beauty in the now," "the path to my perfect state" – it was easy to get swept up in the hopefulness and yearning of it all. The grandly stated vocals of Ann Ward and Dee Alexander, among others, heightened the intensity of the experience, as did Mitchell's flute solos and Douglas Ewart's saxophone orations.
Though a bit of tightening is called for, "Sunyata" deserves to be staged and seen again, one hopes with as much craft as on this occasion.
Reich is a Tribune critic.
Renee' C. Baker, Dirigent
Comment by email:
Comment by email: