Vibrant performance from newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble

Kevin Clarke performs on marimba and Sharra Wagner performs on clarinet in front of a large multicolored sculpture by Frank Stella.

newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble’s Kevin Clarke (marimba) and Sharra Wagner (clarinet) perform under Frank Stella’s “The Prophet (D16, 2X)” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. 

Rounding out the tail end of their successful 30th season, members of newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble performed “Musical Spectrum of Color,” the first in a two part series at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. 

They performed in the museum’s atrium on Saturday afternoon in conjunction with the exhibition “Virginia Jaramillo: Principles of Equivalence.” 

The exhibition celebrates Jaramillo’s 60+ year career, how her work has evolved, exploring the changes in influence, textures, expression, and worldview of the artist. 

This partnership with newEar reflected not just the variety of Jaramillo’s work in inspiring these selections, but also showcases newEar’s inherent eclecticism and curiosity, whether performing repertoire from the last few decades or serving as a commissioning ensemble and highlighting local composers. 

For this show, newEar presented duo and solo works, featuring Kevin Clarke on marimba, Sharra Wagner on clarinet and Christina Webster on flute, three of the organization’s core musicians. Like Jaramillo’s work, there was an interesting textural range in the pieces they performed, even within the constraints of three instrumental colors. 

While a large percentage of the audience clearly came specifically for the performance, the 90 minute concert was in a discovery setting, with museum attendees welcome to come and go, the music filtering into the galleries throughout the space. 

Due to traffic surrounding Pride events in Theis Park and Dragon Boat races in Brush Creek by the Country Club Plaza, I missed the first piece, a work for solo piccolo by Amanda Harberg, “Hall of Ghosts.” It was written in 2020, and originally written to be performed in an empty concert hall, incorporating the echoes of the responsive space. 

Throughout the concert, they divvied out movements from Ástor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango, originally for flute and guitar, performed here on clarinet and marimba. These works are an inviting and palatable inclusion for a new music presentation, written in 1985, but looking back to the turn of the century as the art form morphed and took on various influences.

Evidenced here, but throughout their repertory, newEar has brought in works from a range of influences, demonstrating how far-reaching and inclusive the concept of “new music” can be. 

Case in point was the next piece, “Kembang Suling” for flute and marimba by New Zealand composer Gareth Farr, explored colors inspired by gamelan, featuring interlocking rhythms and melodic flights. (In a nod to the day’s Pride activities, they mentioned that Farr also performs as the drag persona Lilith LaCroix.) 

The first movement was sinuous and iterative, though the marimba sometimes overwhelmed the flute. The second featured a sorrowful, searching melody from flute, and the final movement paired an introspective marimba with insistent flute. It was a captivating piece, and a well received example of Farr’s work, balancing strong arcs of color with muted effects. 

Augusta Read Thomas’ “Capricci: Hummingbird Romance” featured clarinet and flute in duet, and was written as a wedding present. Like many a long-wearing relationship, the two voices are sometimes synced, sometimes responsive, sometimes, even, at odds, with bold chords and strong statements from the individual performers. The flute’s long exposition included droplet-like tones and both parts used flutter tongue effect, reminiscent of the territorial buzz of the delicate, iridescent namesake bird. 

Sharra Wagner (clarinet) and Christina Webster (flute) perform Augusta Read Thomas’ “Capricci: Hummingbird Romance” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

Leaning into the organic elements inspired by the exhibition (and providing a chance for the wind players to take a break after the strenuous work of Read Thomas’ piece), Clarke performed “Ghost Garden,” by Adam Hopper on solo marimba. It was a sonic balm, too, featuring a soothing rolling texture, with a hummable melody. The prevalence of this sort of work—accessible, almost pop-like—sometimes surprises those who expect modern music to be astringent and angular. 

newEar typically performs work by living composers, but the later half of the concert featured works of deceased composers, including the second movement of the Piazzolla, “Cafe 1930.” 

Tapping into the cross-culture influences again, Clarke and Webster performed Ravi Shankar’s “L’Aube Enchantee,” based on the raga “Todi,” originally for flute and harp. The raga is played typically during the morning time and the piece had an exploratory feel, as though they were testing out elements, but evolved into spurts of virtuosity.

Wagner and Webster returned for selections from Robert Muczynski’s Duos, Op. 24 for flute and clarinet. Muczynski died in 2010 and has a small compositional output, but this piece retains a place in contemporary music, offering a variety of attitudes in each of the approximately one-to-two minute movements. 

In the first movement, steady tones in clarinet laid the foundation for a meandering flute. The third movement had a more floaty quality, the two voices twining around each other. The fifth movement tapped into Muczynski’s Chicago roots, leaning into more bluesy moments. 

Piazzolla’s “Nightclub 1960” closed out the concert. newEar returns to the Kemper on July 15, for the second presentation of contemporary chamber music in association with the Jaramillo exhibit, though showcasing different musicians from the organization and, undoubtedly, a completely different musical experience.  

Reviewed Saturday, June 10 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble performs July 15 at 1:30 p.m. For more information visit kemperart.org

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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