Postcard from Portugal: New Music Chicago hosts Lawrence Axelrod

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New music is on the map. Typically, this is interpreted as a description of the various pieces of music created by living composers. But as for last week’s recital by pianist, composer and arranger Lawrence Axelrod, the map actually inspired the performance.

Axelrod was popular in Chicago’s new music scene for a long time before deciding to make his home in Portugal a few years ago. A live studio audience, a live streaming audience and a future audience will be available on YouTube via a scheduled recording of the event on Nov. 21 at Experimental Sound Studios, 5925 N. Ravenswood Ave. He returned to Chicago for a concert at

All the composers on the program had connections to Portugal. Axelrod has made wonderful choices for the program, the music is equally captivating and the listeners will have an evening of discovery because it has an added value they may not have been aware of. It was a musical journey with great talent and fantastic performances.

One of the most impressive reading pieces is Duetto (2001) by Carlos Caires. This is a duet in four movements for solo piano and electronics. The opening partata movement, for piano only, begins with a set of strong, short musical statements separated by rests. Axelrod was adept at drawing out the different textures of music by focusing on natural changes.

Fantasia finds Axelrod creating stunning pieces of piano and electronics, the latter of which begins with a dramatic, watery score. The piano blared as the recorded track changed to indelible clicks and scratches. The electronics run in and out like a squealing mouse at times, and it was surprising how well the “mouse” blended with the piano to create a cohesive whole. Sometimes the electronics seem to echo the piano, giving a strange and interesting cave or cave effect.

As the work progressed in the last two movements, Axelrod showed a great ability to match the voice with the movement of the recording. Sometimes the electronics consist of piano, which becomes a trio: two pianos and electronics. There were breath-taking moments where the piano and machine recording were closely intertwined to form a beautiful unity.

My favorite work on the program was the last one. This is Axelrod’s own essay, “(un)Stable”, written in 2022. He was inspired by his move to Portugal and enjoyed music for piano, toy piano and electronics. I have never been a fan of toy pianos so I thought this would ruin the piece. And early in the set, the piano and electronics seemed out of balance, especially when compared to the duet in Kairus, the electronics’ louder and bolder partner.

But I was wrong. Everything about this composition works, and it works beautifully. As I mentioned, I realized that the “unbalanced” behavior of the included units was not a bug. I interpreted the piano as his own composer and the electronics as Lisbon. Naturally, the individual becomes somewhat smaller than the city. The piano was always clearly audible as it cut through the city and the sounds of trains and traffic. Indeed, the music was a perfect balance to the story it was telling.

As Axelrod explained in a lecture before playing the work, the toy piano became a marvel, serving as a key means of expressing purity and simplicity.

Piano and electronics blend well, and little snippets of the Portuguese national anthem flow in from time to time, creating a unique space and pride. This episode reminds me of “An American in Paris”. They are completely different musically, but the effective expression of wonder and delight in a new place shines through in both. The buzz and buzz through the electronics created a wonderful energy. Axelrod’s piano sang to the city, sang with the city, and provided a counterpoint to the city. The work celebrated Lisbon and showed Axelrod’s fascination and admiration for music. “(un)settled” is a vibrant celebration.

Timothy Ernest Johnson’s “Tessera de Saudade” was composed this year, and Axelrod’s performance was a world premiere. Johnson, an American, told the audience that he lived on the island of Azores for two years and fell in love with the place and his adopted family. The music opens with an almost hymn-like quality and what seems like a deep journey into many emotions. The music was a beautiful tribute and a sense of remembrance, reverence, joy and sadness, and not least nostalgia.

Andrea Pinto-Correa’s “Silêncios, Atmosferas e Utopias” (2008) was short but packed with punch. Axelrod masterfully realizes the author’s contrasts and textures in a brilliant performance.

Inspired by meditation in Eduardo Luis Patriarca’s “Meditacao” (2007), Axelrod turned to music. It opens with a surprisingly powerful, low, grave chant. As he developed, smooth back-and-forth phrases in the right hand and an emphatic meditative tone emerged in the left. Its twisted nature also suggested meditation, and the music had a calming and purifying feel. Axelrod has convinced me that this music is truly a journey of the mind.

Peca Com Vista (2018) by Diogo Alvim was an interesting improvisational piece, and selections from “Pequenos Estudos Caracteristicos” (2020/21) by Sergio Azevedo were given a virtuoso treatment. My favorite of Azevedo’s selections was titled “Entrecruzado,” a waltz like dream under the dark.

You can hear this concert and learn about future concerts by visiting. (Please note that due to technical difficulties, there is no sound at the beginning of Axelrod’s concert, so you will not be able to hear the works by Jorge Peixinho or Azevedo, you have to skip ahead several minutes.)

Lawrence Axelrod’s latest recording, “5X4”, is available from Ravello Records. It presents five works for quartets for various instruments: string quartet; flute, clarinet, cello and piano quartet; Rhythm Quartet and Double Bass Quartet. You can learn more by visiting.

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