The International Contemporary Concert gave a memorial concert last week, a rare occurrence and one that doesn’t often happen with contemporary classical music. The occasion was the murder of violist Omar Hernández-Hidalgo in June. He had been kidnapped four days earlier, and was found in the trunk of a car. Hernández-Hidalgo was 39, and an excellent violist with an abiding commitment to new music, especially that from his native Mexico. He was the first Mexican violist to earn a Ph.D , and his talents were praised by Pierre Boulez. To celebrate his life, ICE commissioned three young Mexican composers to write new pieces, and premiered them at the Museum of Contemporary Art on South Michigan Avenue. The museum is currently exhibiting a two-room group of photographs under the title La Frontera: The Cultural Impact of Mexican Migration, which provided a moving visual counterpoint to the music.
On the face of it, contemporary music is an odd choice for a memorial. Usually in these contexts, listeners want the comfort of what they have previously heard, and music they have built memories around. Hearing works over the course of a lifetime with friends, spouses, dates, on recordings, in different cities, by different musicians creates a web of associations with a piece of music. Its use often becomes associated with a particular context, the way Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is played at funerals, especially in public, or the way the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays J.S. Bach’s Air on a G String in memorial tribute to recent musicians’ deaths. At other funerals for family members, it’s sometimes done that the deceased’s favorite music is played. In all of these scenes, what characterizes the music is that it’s known, and comforting for being known and remembered.
But last Wednesday night, when 40 or so of us went to this concert, we didn’t know any of the pieces. A few may have known the composers and had an idea of what they may have composed for the occasion, but that is, I think, a small percentage of the already small (relatively) audience. Since no one knew what they may be hearing soon, however, we found ourselves with the same level of anticipation as we waited to hear something new.
Before each work on the program was an English-language recording of the composer Wilfredo Terrazas reflecting on one aspect of his friendship with Hernández-Hidalgo, how gifted he was, the many works he commissioned and premiered, his travels, how they formed an ensemble together, and how honored he was to have known Hernández-Hidalgo, and other memories. He also mentioned that Hernández-Hidalgo was tortured before he was finally killed.
Iván Naranjo’s Máquina Esquiza III was the evening’s first piece and scored for violin, flute and clarinet. The flute and clarinet seemed to align themselves together against the violin, blowing air through their instruments plaintively, or violently, as the violin leaped around and between them. The jagged violin line jutted against the howling from the winds, with what seemed to be little reprieve. There is another version which trades the violin for viola.
Canto fúnebre, by Samuel Cedillo (b. 1981), called for clarinetist Josh Rubin to remove the mouthpiece, and blow into it as if it were a brass instrument (“buzzing” with the lips). The resulting ghostly sound was mesmerizing, with flute and violin again weaving around each other.
The final piece was Edgar Guzmán‘s Death and Time for violin and electronics, specifically live manipulated stereo tape. Speakers were placed in the gallery’s corners, which were fed manipulated shards of violinist David Bowlin’s playing. The subtle gradations of sound he produced by bowing the instruments body, or the strings as he held them entirely down with his left hand, floated on the edge of audibility. It ended up sounding like a haunting lament played very quietly, with echoes appearing across the room, or from behind.
Claire Chase was the flutist on the first piece, gutsy as ever, and Eric Lamb flutist on the second, likewise unflappable. Josh Rubin played clarinet on both works and was his usual rock-solid self, as well as handling the tape-manipulating in the final piece. David Bowlin was the violinist, as I just wrote, and played these gnarly modernist works as if they were Tchaikovsky.
I knew Omar Hernández-Hidalgo somewhat when we were both in Bloomington at the Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. We didn’t know each other well, but I heard him perform frequently with the New Music Ensemble and in orchestra concerts. He stood about 5’6″, with delicate features but with a vein of deep seriousness running through his manner. I grilled him with questions about new music any time I saw him in the library, and he was unfailingly polite, always shy and reserved. To think of this gentle musician dying in such a violent, painful fashion is to ponder the unfair callousness of life anew.