Iva Bittova a sensation with Present Music
Iva Bittová danced a little dance Saturday night, during her Huljet amid her concert with Present Music. Bittová, lithe and lovely at 52, bobbed and tip-toed through a couple of turns and danced like a little girl in a silly mood. That moment, so charming, so funny and so unbearably innocent, said something about her whole approach to music and performance.
She will do absolutely anything to make the musical and theatrical moment absolutely right. In six solo numbers and six with the Present Music ensemble, she groaned, squeaked, screamed, cried out, sang through a waggling tongue. (In the hilarious Painters in Paris, she somehow vocally conjured a gaggle of prattling Parisian women.) She also sang exquisitely in a variety of conventional styles and an astonishing array of timbres, from nearly operatic to glossy jazz to the edgy nasality associated with East European folk music.
As she vocalized, she played her violin. Sometimes, she used it as a drone instrument and sometimes primarily for rhythm. But more often, her voice and violin interacted in complex ways. In her setting of Gertrude Stein’s Spider (I am I), violin and voice begin in unison. Then the violin veers off into parallel harmony and then into counterpoint. Not easy.
While she does this sort of incredible stuff, she moves, smiles, makes eye contact with the audience and generally behaves like the most charming and eccentric pop singer ever. She’s as adorable as she is amazing, and the audience exploded with affectionate applause for her at the end of the concert.
Bittová’s music might ultimately depend on her presence, but she is a very canny composer nonetheless. She grew up in musical household in Moravia and absorbed influences from gypsy to klezmer to classical to jazz. All of it shows up reprocessed into music unique to her but immediately comprehensible.
It appears obvious that Bittová has absorbed the lessons of Minimalism — a good deal of repetition holds her compositions together, and she is fond of ostinato. And what ostinatos! Over the course of the evening she trotted out one bizarre repeating figure after another, all of them bristling with whipsaw rhythms, all of them distinct, all of them visceral and exciting, and all of them stamped in your brain after a single iteration. These repeating figures often give way to other ones and then recur, and thus help define structure and give character to episodes. Bittová’s music coheres and it goes somewhere.
A Funny Miss was the evening’s most ambitious and exciting work. This larger-scale piece involved pianist Cory Smythe, Eric Segnitz (on electric guitar for the occasion), cellist Adrien Zitoun, flutist Marie Sander, clarinetist Bill Helmers, percussionist Terry Smirl, artistic director Kevin Stalheim (on muted trumpet for the occasion). They interacted brilliantly and joyfully with the soloist and had ample opportunity to improvise within a taut overall structure. My personal favorite, though, was Samota (Loneliness). For this number, Bittová put down the violin and became a jazz chanteuse of the highest order, as Smythe dropped a very few notes into exactly the right places.
Steve Reich wrote the Double Sextet, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner in music, for Chicago’s Eighth Blackbird ensemble. Two live sextets can play it, or one part can be recorded and played against a live group. Sander (flute), Segnitz (violin), Helmers (clarinet), Zitoun (cello) and Smirl (vibraphone) played against Eighth Blackbird’s recorded part Saturday.
The piece opens with vibrating layers of rhythm that seem to change bit by bit over time. The music creates the impression of hurtling ahead through time and space, rather in the way of the fast parts of Reich’s Different Trains, but without the spoken words. From this dense and bustling complex, a lyrical theme emerges as if by magic. Reich recasts it and develops it in a substantial and lushly harmonized middle section unlike anything I can recall in his work. It is very beautiful. The first material returns — or, perhaps, higher, lighter music related to the opening bit follows the lyrical middle and brings us to a satisfying conclusion. Present Music delivered Reich’s goods with conviction and verve to make a composer weep with gratitude.
This program took place at the Humphrey Scottish Rite Center. Present Music’s next concert, on June 18, involves another great, unconventional modern diva, Amy X. Neuburg. The premiere of Jerome Kitzke’s Buffalo Nation, originally scheduled for May 7, has been postponed until next season.