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Monday, March 21, 2011

Present Music's Extreme Diva

Classical Review

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Iva Bittova, whom Present Music introduced to Milwaukee in a program titled D/IVA, is an astonishing singer. Hearing her effortlessly reach extremes of range, color and timbre as she laced texts in several languages with cascades of emotive vocalizations, I thought first of the strange post-modern performance artist Meredith Monk. As the program unfolded, I thought of Laura Nyro, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf and Judy Garland. I'm sure each audience member was reminded of their own favorites.

Bittova' performed 12 of her compositions, art songs set to texts by different writers, among them Gertrude Stein ("you must not mistake me for the sky/I am I").  She draws on Gypsy and Jewish folk music with a good whiff of French cabaret, and she is very much herself: charmingly, humorously making light of her powers.

In the opening acoustic set, she accompanied herself on violin; I could as well say she accompanied the violin with her voice. Beyond virtuosity, the instrument is part of her.  Her voice often sounds like the violin in all the strange, comic, searing and beautiful sounds the instrument can produce. With no pretension, she strolled among the audience like a fiddler in a European street café, bending to play to patrons. In the second half, she was the singer at the microphone, her violin plugged in, and her band was the Present Music Ensemble on electric guitar, piano, sax, bass and drums.  They took us to primal places and met us there.


The program also included Steve Reich's Double Sextet (2008) for flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin and cello.  It can be played in two ways, according to the program: by 12 musicians doubling the parts or six musicians playing against a recording of themselves. Each method adds difficulty for the players and that may be the point, or perhaps it's a comment on our mediated age.  Present Music played the piece against a recording by the Chicago ensemble Eighth Blackbird, the group that commissioned the work. The musicians matched each note of the recorded version with just enough natural discrepancy to keep us aware of the set-up. It might have been more rewarding had they played the very fast, repetitive, rhythmically complex music in unison with living doppelgangers.  Reich won a Pulitzer for this characteristically minimalist urban tribal incantation, but for my money (I have none) Bittova's songs go deeper.