Loop38 in Groundbreaking Houston Debut

The word “try” implies a lot of different ideas from earnest ventures and brave experiments to risky attempts. It means taking a stab at something when you don’t know how it will turn out. In its debut concert last night at Midtown and Arts Theatre Center Houston, Loop38 humbly emphasized the idea of trying, but there’s no ambiguity about where it will land. With the creation of Loop38, something electrifying has arrived in Houston.

Loop38 is a 17-person collective of musicians co-founded by pianist Yvonne Chen and conductor Jerry Hou. It focuses on performing “new music,” stuff that’s being composed right now and in the near past, which means the collective will constantly be taking risks, shifting the foundations of what we know and challenging us to consider new musical realities.

The five works on the program, all written in the last 24 years, showed five facets of what these new realities could be. With Andrew Norman’s 2011 work “Try,” a sensational amount of different musical ideas intersected, from dynamics fading radically in and out to sliding tones and groaning foundations above which a frenzy of notes flew around. The eight minutes comprising Christopher Cerrone’s “Recovering” were sacred moments of evolving breath (musicians stood spaced out around the room breathing into their instruments) with percussionist Craig Hauschildt unassumingly in the fore striking serene resonances.

With a paradox for a title, Mizzy Mazzoli’s 2008 “The Sound of Light” toyed with open fifths, quick scales, and duple and triple meter. Christina Hughes, pristinely performing on the flute, aptly held one heel of her leopard print pumps suspended in the air for most of the piece. Likewise, in Hans Abrahamsen’s moving quintet “Herbstlied,” Katie Hart took the English horn into uncharted pastoral territory. The English horn denotes mellow peacefulness naturally in its timbre, but this was something beyond.

The concert culminated with “Living Toys,” a 1993 composition by Thomas Adès. Of all the composers on the program, Adès was the only one I felt skeptical about. His empty and vain 2003 opera The Tempest perpetuates the stereotype that new work is difficult to listen to. And so I was surprised to feel pulled into the work, following the coordinated uncoordination of so many sounds, lines, and melodies.

Jerry Hou, who conducted with understated finesse, joked beforehand about how hard “Living Toys” was to perform. And this is the other thing that makes Loop38 such a success as a group—no one there made it look difficult. The fervor and skill each one of these performers has is not something you’re going to see in Houston very often.

With Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s disaster world premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life at Houston Grand Opera this weekend lodged in my recent memory, I can tell you first-hand that new music doesn’t automatically translate as something worth trying, and I can tell you why so many organizations veer toward work that is already known and beloved. But this is also why we should all be clamoring for tickets to Loop38’s next concert. It’s cliché, but I’m going to say it anyway: this concert was a breath of fresh air. More than that, Loop38 is breaking unorthodox ground with intentional pluck in an era when we need that more than ever.

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