CD Review: ‘Excelsior,’ by Fifth House Ensemble

Members of Fifth House Ensemble.
Members of the Fifth House Ensemble. (PR image via the Ensemble's website)

CHICAGO, December 4, 2014 – There was a time not so long ago when the new music offerings in Chicago were narrow in availability as well as aesthetic breadth. If recent years have seen a new music renaissance in the city, Fifth House Ensemble is surely near the front of the innovative pack.

This group’s versatility can be heard on their recent release “Excelsior,” an exceptional recording currently on offer from Chicago’s own Cedille Records.

Started in 2005 by three members of the CSO Civic Orchestra (current flautist Melissa Snoza, cellist Herine Coetzee, and clarinetist Jennifer Woodrum), Fifth House has clearly filled a musical void in the Windy City.

Members of Fifth House Ensemble.
Members of Fifth House Ensemble in performance. (Via the ensemble’s website)

The ensemble is named after the “fifth house” in astrology, which, as many aging Boomers surely know is the house of creativity and joy. Since its founding, the Fifth House Ensemble has grown into a versatile team of ten formidable instrumentalists who are unafraid to engage in a variety of combinations for their public performances.

Perhaps the great genius of the so-called “Pierrot Ensemble” is its ability to generate an intimate chamber sound at one moment, and (with the aid of percussion) reach for an orchestral largeness in the next.

For the uninitiated, this variety of ensemble is named for Schönberg’s epoch-creating composition “Pierrot Lunaire.” The quintet of instruments used in the work became, according to a Wikipedia entry, “the core ensemble for many contemporary-music ensembles of the twentieth century, such as The Fires of London, who formed in 1965 as ‘The Pierrot Players’ to perform ‘Pierrot Lunaire.’”

In its simplest form, a “Pierrot Ensemble” consists of a flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano with the occasional introduction of a vocalist and/or a percussionist. It’s also not uncommon for such performers to occasionally double on another instrument as well.

Many new compositions employ variations on this ensemble arrangement to take advantage of the tonal shadings and nuances such groupings can produce.

In certain ways Fifth House has a “pierrot with friends” structure, with the additions of instruments such as oboe, horn, viola and bassoon giving the ensemble more potential timbral volume, all without exceeding the particularly intimate and detailed bounds of chamber music.

“Excelsior” presents this group at its very best, riding the wave of a predictably incredible production effort by the legendary Judith Sherman. The selection of music on this recording is diverse, but not so varied as to create a less than satisfying whole. One might even be so bold as to claim that this is a new music album that can lead to new music conversions, as it is simultaneously ambitious and approachable.

The first track, “Perpetual Spark,” comes to us from composer Alex Shapiro, and is a tribute to a deceased person who was dear to him. The vibrant track pulsates with the power of life, and Shapiro’s promise of music honoring “a spark from a life filled with passion and delight, burning brightly, intensely, and without end” is aptly fulfilled. This work deserves further public performances.

“Perpetual Spark” is followed by “Air,” a work by emerging composer Jesse Limbacher. It is the most avant-garde composition on the album, mixing key clicks, whispers and vocalizations, along with effervescent lines that sound like exploded bits of Persichetti being tossed playfully about.

Limbacher is suitably experimental for a young composer still developing his voice, but shows remarkable promise in his disciplined approach and sense of space. In the context of the CD, the work is a perfect palette-cleanser between the sparkling opening track and the more expansive expressions that follow.

Sometimes it is a bad idea to read program notes before listening to a new recording. This is certainly the case when it comes to Mason Bates’s “Red River.” A reviewer might be forgiven getting apprehensive about the promise of synthy textures and trip-hop beats when perusing this CD’s program notes on this composition. Far too many contemporary works simply abuse such soundscapes to the detriment of good taste.

Yet Bates delivers a surprisingly powerful and thoughtful musical package, whose electronic elements fuse seamlessly with Fifth House’s impeccable performance. These rhythmic electronic elements, for their part, are seated tastefully within the mix and never exceed their place in the musical architecture. Moving through a variety of styles and moods reflective of a great geographic journey, Bates’s “Red River” possesses an original yet truly American feel.

Screenshot of "Excelsior" CD cover art via Cedille Records website.
Screenshot of “Excelsior” CD cover art via Cedille Records website.

In the end, what praise can suffice for Caleb Burhans’ “Excelsior”? A towering work of bold simplicity and shattering beauty, it is easy to see why the album took its name from this marquee work and why it was chosen to finish this fine recording. Featuring the full Fifth House Ensemble, the work gently incorporates electronic textures, Burhans’ own famous electric violin playing and an unforgettable performance by soprano Martha Culver. While it is sparse in its language, it is unfair to label a piece that unfolds with such grand, Goreckian deliberateness and power as “minimalistic” as its effect is anything but.

It is difficult today to discover an ensemble that makes consistently great aesthetic choices. Indeed, many ensembles that specialize in (or occasionally condescend to) new music seem intent on reinforcing the old negative stereotypes that serve to drive audiences away. By contrast, the Fifth House Ensemble seems to have a consistent track record of seeking truly beautiful new works capable of growing new music audiences in America.

As for “Excelsior,” it may well be the new music album of the year. Chicago is a fortunate city indeed to host such an effort.

Postscript: The Fifth House Ensemble will be performing their benefit “Holiday Party” concert on Saturday, December 6th, 2014 at 7:00 p.m., at 3111 North Western Ave in Chicago. For more performances and some great multimedia coverage, please check out the group’s website.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

To purchase the physical “Excelsior” CD or download its contents, visit this link.

For further information on Fifth House Ensemble, link to their website here.

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