In the green room at intermission, legendary jazz pianist and vocalist Patricia Barber turns to me and asks, "How the f*** do I follow that?" She was referring to a performance by percussionist Nicholas Reed of Marta Ptaszynska's "Space Model," a work for three sets of percussion instruments and recorded track. Reed's seamless playing held the audience in rapt attention, igniting waves of applause. Pianist Lisa Kaplan and cellist Nicholas Photinos, both of eighth blackbird, opened the show with the haunting "Habil-Sayagy" by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. The Pacifica Quartet followed with Elena Firsova's String Quartet No. 11, "Purgatorium," playing with its trademark precision and sensitivity. I didn't have an answer to Barber's very serious question, other than to say, "I'm glad I don't have to."
Barber was just as intense during her set as she was before it. Sensing the enormity of the concert - the 10th anniversary of the new music series Contempo at the University of Chicago curated by Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Shulamit Ran - Barber gave a performance both searing and deeply touching, poignant and beautiful. Drummer Ari Hoenig, bassist Patrick Mulcahy, and guitarist Gilad Hekselman provided ample solos and witty accompaniment. But it was Barber who carried the full weight of the music. I know this because I witnessed it from the front row, often dropping my camera from my eye just to watch for a minute. It was an honor to photograph these artists, and to share for the briefest of moments the space they occupy.