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Two premieres reflect the ups and downs of Claire Chase’s ‘Density 2036’

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Flutist Claire Chase is a community builder. You can see this in “Density 2036,” her 24-year project to commission a new repertoire for her instrument. And you feel a sense of community as she expresses her gratitude to the audience who show up to multiple performances in a row.

This week, Chase expressed her appreciation to those who attended multiple concerts in her recent “Density” retrospective celebrating her 10th anniversary at the temporary venue of the Kitchen, in the Westbeth complex, and Zankel Hall.

“It’s a lot of flute,” she admitted in the kitchen on Wednesday. (Listeners outside of New York may experience something similar, with most of “Density” available to hear in recordings collected on Chase’s Bandcamp profile.)

WHERE. But in two programs that night, Chase offered a generous spread of composers and their respective approaches to the flute family. As a result, the music never felt staid. You could enjoy the light-hearted qualities of pieces by Matana Roberts and Ann Cleare, as well as the harder groovy material of works by Wang Lu and Craig Taborn.

Each episode of “Density” has a runtime of approximately one hour. Some programs contain multiple pieces; some focus on just one. When the latter happens, there’s an added sense of risk-taking, both for listeners and Chase. If a composition does not catch on strongly, then it is the whole hour.

That was my experience on Thursday evening, when ‘Ubique’ by Anna Thorvaldsdottir premiered on Zankel. This work, like many in ‘Density’, drew more than just a flute solo from the instrumental talents of Chase, the pianist Cory Smythe and the cellists Katinka Kleijn and Seth Parker Woods. (As was often the case during the retrospective, Levy Lorenzo directed the use of electronic sounds and Nicholas Houfek provided subtle lighting design.)

In the beginning of “Ubique,” Thorvaldsdottir writes eye-catching passages: bouts of rhythmically dynamic piano-and-flute passages, and some winning two-cello drones. But as these elements were reprized in the second half, it sounded like the material was being stretched, without much new added.

On the other end of the spectrum, Chase’s willingness to give a composer a full hour also paid off dramatically in the Kitchen premiering improvising pianist and composer Craig Taborn’s “Busy Griefs and Endangered Charms.” It was one of the best shows I’ve been to this season.

Taborn is legendary in contemporary jazz, with piano playing of delicacy, intricacy and power. His 2011 debut solo recording for ECM, “Avenging Angel,” ranks among the finest piano works of this century, and in recent compositions for his Junk Magic ensemble, he’s also moved into chamber arrangements.

So, Chase was wise to ask Taborn for a program-length “Density” piece. “Griefs” placed him in a quartet alongside Chase, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, and percussionist Susie Ibarra. (Ibarra, another major presence on jazz stages, has also recently performed the work of Pauline Oliveros with Chase.)

“Griefs” opens with echoing synth figures on a digital loop, plus some fat, mournful acoustic piano harmonies; as is his regular practice, Taborn manipulated a small electronic manual that rested on top of his piano. After Rubin entered on bass clarinet, Taborn’s articulation of the opening material sped up, though the sombre mood remained intact.

It took Chase five minutes to play a flute – but once she did, Taborn’s piece turned from his sorrows to his charms. During the hour, Chase was given space to team up with every other player in duos, all benefiting from Taborn’s invitations to improvise. With Rubin, she sent lines in unison that gradually branched into rhythmically independent cries; the sneaky effect had the quality of Taborn’s own piano playing. With Ibarra she enjoyed funky passages. And with Taborn she collaborated on long-lined melodies and freer-sounding improvisations.

Taborn himself took a few dramatic solos, which were as impetuous as they were lyrical. But he also kept silent for a long time, listening intently to the other musical partnerships he had initiated. There was always something to taste.

After the concert I asked Taborn if I had missed any more similar chamber music from him. He mentioned some two-piano pieces he developed with Smythe—the pianist in the premiere of Thorvaldsdottir—but said “Griefs” was his first piece on that scale.

When Chase gets to record and release this part of “Density,” Taborn’s work deserves to become a major event in multiple music circles. For now, the premiere is emblematic of the kind of concert Chase knows how to ask for, ahead of any other classical music host. It is the kind of piece that can only be commissioned by a soloist who listens closely to the broad community of living American composers. And that is a quality for which the public is rightly grateful.

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