A kaleidoscope of new music in the South Loop

The 6Degrees Composers (clockwise from back left): Hyde Parker Janice Misurell-Mitchell, Regina Harris Baiocchi, and Kyong Mee Choi. (Photo courtesy of M.L. Rantala)

By M.L. Rantala
Music critic

6Degrees Composers is a group of women composers, all connected to Chicago, who regularly offer concerts to introduce their music to the Chicago music scene. Their most recent event was last Friday in the Sherwood Auditorium at Columbia College, just south of Roosevelt Road on Michigan Avenue.

Four composers were featured: Hyde Parker Janice Misurell-Mitchell, Regina Harris Baiocchi, Kyong Mee Choi, and Patricia Morehead. All of the composers were present except Morehead, a former long-time resident of Chicago who now lives in Canada but continues to make her voice heard in the Windy City.

There were nine short works (none was as long as ten minutes) on the program which had no intermission. Things got off to a superb start with “I’ve Got a Mother & Father” by Baiocchi. This short, unaccompanied song was delivered with flair by soprano Felicia Patton, who also performs gospel, jazz, and soul music. Her low notes were rich and luxurious, and she floated the high notes with great beauty. Baiocchi’s short work was in the form of a spiritual with jazzy embroidery, and Patton made it compelling.

Morehead’s “Variations for Solo Piano,” saw the first of a handful of Chicago’s finest pianists. Sebastian Huydts offered a fluid performance with strong dynamics, knowing when to employ muscular sound and when to be delicate.

“Autumn Night” by Baiocchi was given a gloriously haunting treatment by flutist Caroline Pittman. The music was attractive, and the march-like section was an unexpected detour that was particular pretty.

Kyong Mee Choi’s “Unleashed” for solo piano found Kuang-Hao Huang taking on a nine-minute work that attempts to capture the political turmoil since Donald Trump’s election. The music featured a lot of work at both the very top and very bottom of the keyboard, suggesting political polarization, and some of the incredible, pounding music was clearly suggestive of divisive political battles, with some of the most unsettling music perched at the midpoint of the instrument. Huang was notably charming with the cheeky little flourish that ends the piece.

Misurell-Mitchell was a one-woman hurricane performing her bravado “Amendment Blues #1.” She played alto flute and also performed the spoken voice elements of this work which is as much performance art as music. Her text came from the First Amendment as well as a statement by the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street (it was written shortly after the Occupy movement scored big attention in 2011). What is most striking about this complex web of music and politics is Misurell-Mitchell’s ability to take simple melodies and skew them in order to create both satire and protest. The six-minute piece was fascinating and unusual.

Felicia Patton returned to the stage with violinist Robert Fisher, flutist Caroline Pittman, and the djembe drummer known as Taylor for Baiocchi’s “Wash-Belly Baby.” Patton again had delicious sound as she navigated this lullaby which is both a love song from mother to child, but also a promise from an older mother to always protect her baby. The violin was set the domestic scene while the flute offered lift. The djembe’s added texture was splendid. Patton had a simple approach which was very effective.

Misurell-Mitchell’s “Vanishing Points/Quantum Leaps I” is scored for clarinet (Emily Marlow), cello (Cheng-Hou Lee), violin (Ming Huan Xu), and piano (Winston Choi). The players created a powerful sense of agitation. The music shifted and swirled, at one point resembling the sound of insects swarming and then dispersing.

Choi scored a winner with her “Train of Thoughts,” a wittily named all-electronics piece which attempts to capture the way the mind wanders. She centers this soundscape in an imagined train journey, with the sounds of the train gradually giving way to other sounds as the mind trips along a desultory and unpredictable journey.

The concert closed with a work for two pianos by Baiocchi. Winston Choi and Kuang-Hao Huang dueled at the keyboards (one a Yamaha the other a Kawai) with frisky music containing jazz inflections that the two pianists made engaging and exciting.

The concert was followed by a wine and sweets reception where composers, performers, and the audience gathered to talk about the music. It was rewarding to see that not only many audience members stayed to discuss the performance but that there were a number of children and young adults in the audience who stayed as well. 6Degrees has done well to attract an audience of all ages. First formed by Baiocchi in 2010, 6Degrees Composers brings robust and interesting music written by women to a larger audience. Long may they prosper.

Folks interested in hearing more music by these composers should make note of two upcoming concerts. The Bach and Beethoven Experience will perform Baiocchi’s “Wild Onion Suite” in September and the Jazz X-tet Ensemble at the University of Chicago will perform Misurell-Mitchell’s “X-marks II” in June. For more information, visit the websites of the composers: reginaharrisbaiocchi.com and jmisurell-mitchell.com.