Zafa Collective opens new year with virtuosic diversity

By Hannah Edgar

Upstart new music ventures, like the works they perform, can be comet-like—brilliantly blazing onto the scene, only to quickly flame out, never to be seen (or heard) again.

One hopes that Zafa Collective, one such luminous body, is here to stay. Now in its third season, this ambitious, polished contemporary music cadre programs frequently and inclusively, with the ensemble’s monthly concerts centering on works by minority composers.

The ensemble’s Sunday concert at Constellation, “Life and Death,” collated works by six composers seldom heard in Chicagoland. Some of the composers are obscure—Nathan Hudson, who penned the world-premiere Featured Verse, is a doctoral student at Stony Brook University. Others like Tania León and Gabriela Ortiz, however, are internationally established yet disproportionately overlooked on the home front.  Zafa more than addressed that anomaly with consistently top-notch perfomances.

León’s morsel-sized quintet Parajota Delaté (1991) (for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano) offered an excellent sample of the Cuban-born composer’s scoring prowess, with soloistic bursts overlapping to create appealing timbral junctions. Ortiz’s interweaving, playful Atlas­–Pumas (1996)—inspired by a soccer match involving her home team, the Mexico City Pumas—united Zafa violinist and artistic director Hannah Christiansen with marimbist Josh Graham, their instruments serving as rhythmically inventive conversationalists.

As the junior contribution on the program, Hudson’s Featured Verse for clarinet, cello, and piano matched the exuberance of the León and Ortiz works without showing their polished experience. The virtuosic writing is undone by ambiguous recitative-like figures and a slightly awkward return of the expositional material. Nor did the rap convention which lends the piece its name—a guest artist’s musical cameo on a track—seem to have much bearing on the piece’s aesthetic sensibility. Not coincidentally, Featured Verse’s most impassioned advocate was the composer’s brother, core Zafa member Andy Hudson, for whom the piece’s vaulting clarinet lines made a bravura showcase.

The works that hewed closest to the evening’s existential theme stood out for their emotional and sonic depth. 

Emily Koh’s trans-[migra].nation (2011) honors the late Steven Baxter, onetime dean and director of Peabody Conservatory and its Singaporean sister school Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, both of which Koh attended. The 11-minute octet offered the evening’s most expansive instrumentation but sounded even greater than the sum of its parts in its eruptive moments. Conducted coolly and unobtrusively by Maurice Cohn, Zafa’s tight ensemble was most impressive in this large-scale work, the musicians’ unison lines and motivic echoes interlocking fluently.

An associate professor of composition at the University of Michigan, Kristin Kuster composes music more indebted to a tonal American school. Colorful yet raw, Here, Leaving (2010) was written as Kuster’s father succumbed to a long battle with cancer. Audrey Q. Snyder’s solo cello acted as a wizened storyteller, its rhapsodic ribbon seeming to weave between the stages of grief. An agitato middle quells into a lyrical duet with double bass, then dissipates into submissive ponticello and harmonics in the strings. While the ambling qualities of Here, Leaving feel discursive at times, this personal work made a strong emotional impact.

Sri Lankan–born Dinuk Wijeratne composed The Spirit and the Dust (2015) for percussionist and fellow Canadian Beverly Johnson, written in memory of her late nephew. While the work isn’t explicitly programmatic, its four short movements borrow titles from poems, like the titular Dickinson line. 

Leading Zafa’s uniquely marimba-heavy program, this uninterrupted, meditative solo showcase for the instrument gave Graham a deserved moment in the sun. His technical facility assured a gleaming performance of this intricate, emotionally roving piece, but Graham’s thoughtful artistry elevated it to another plane altogether.

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