New Music in Chicago

Being a lover of the performing arts is to enter a relationship, not only with the creators and performers whose passions and talents you bear witness to, but with the entire community in which you move, view, listen and hold your breath.  Over time you see the rise and fall of ensembles, the emergence of certain styles, the disruptive influence, positive or negative, of the most ambitious players, the waxing and waning of audiences, the changing priorities of presenters, and the overall and always shifting gestalt that is mysteriously unveiled in the midst of so much diversity.

Chicago is big enough to constantly grant the opportunity to encounter the entirely new, stable enough to keep its artists here as they develop, and small enough to gain an intimate appreciation of those that do. Having been on the scene for several years now, I’m ready to call the 11/12 season as a pivotal moment for new music in Chicago. Or a banner year. Watershed maybe. Tipping point?  Let’s just say it was a good time and place to be if you are a lover of great music played damn well.

I saw Ensemble Dal Niente boldly step into the spotlight with a series of adventurous programs of startling diversity and fierce execution, none more more ambitious, exciting, or satisfying than The Party, a six hour event that nonetheless left me more invigorated than exhausted. Fifth House Ensemble continued to grow and stretch it’s innovative multi-media approach with the timely In Transit, and the inauguration of the fresh inc festival. Access Contemporary Music likewise had another success with the still expanding Sound of Silent Film series, while founder Seth Boustead also launched Relevant Tones, the only program on classical radio solely dedicated to our genre.

Spektral Quartet made a dramatic entrance and lasting impression with several gritty, aggressive performances (coupled with marketing so good it warranted national attention) in venues unaccustomed to string quartets, and capped off the season with perhaps the most challenging program of the year, the multi-disciplinary and selflessly collaborative Theatre of War. These four gentlemen all-stars were matched in their ambition by another quartet, The Chicago Q Ensemble, who released their first album, premiered the utterly unique and unfailingly engaging Fjords (with Manual Cinema), and brought a greatly appreciated balance of genders to many new music events, as well as a new blogging voice in founder Ellen McSweeney.

The University of Chicago’s Presents series Contempo, brought eighth blackbird, Pacifica Quartet and other musicians together to perform some of the most revered composers working today. One of the many such events was an evening length profile of Sofia Gubaidulina, a concert I had intended to make a brief appearance at, merely out of a sense of obligation, but instead kept me riveted for two hours. The CSO continued its investment in the next generation of composers by granting a huge platform to Mason Bates and Anna Clyne through MusicNow (which, inexplicably, does not have a dedicated web page; it’s hard out there for an emerging undercapitalized arts organization, yo). Both of the above series were supported by the Harris Theater, which has never shied from supporting risky programming, while the Museum of Contemporary Art affirmed its commitment to the genre, continuing to host series by ICE and others. New Millennium Orchestra isn’t devoted to new music, but they do include a substantial dose of it in their programs and many of their musicians are active in the scene. Plus, their unhinged performance of Brahms’ 4th this season had me leaping out of my seat.

I didn’t have a chance to hear them perform myself, but I’m really excited to see Gaudete Brass Quintet developing a new look, and if their off-stage humor, charm, and eagerness are any indication of their on-stage presence, I have no doubt I’ll be eagerly attending many concerts of theirs next season. Others doing great work in the field that I met, hung out, or worked with this season included Chicago Composers Orchestra, which is providing a larger scale palate for local composers to work on, Anaphora, Anubis Quartet, MAVerick Ensemble, CUBE, Chicago Chamber Musicians and Fulcrum Point New Music Project.

I can’t say Chicago has a distinct sound, but I heard and loved new works (or works in progress) by Marcos Balter, Drew Baker, Amy Wurtz, Augusta Reed Thomas, Alex Temple, Katherine Young, Liza White, Kyle Vegter, Amy Beth Kirsten and Bernard Rands. More importantly, I think I drank with all but one of them. (Call me Bernard!)

Even the City heard the call. With a wildly successful trial in the form of last year’s Steve Reich festival, which drew 9,000 people, they strengthened their involvement with this year’s Loops & Variations series, featuring several local ensembles on one of the greatest stages in the world. (Whether most of the audience was aware of it or not, their experience of the music was consciously shaped by the involvement of Chicago’s go-to audio engineer, Ryan Ingebritsen, who works the Pritzker Pavilion’s sound system like another member of the ensemble.) Further, the City acknowledged the importance of new music as they developed the forthcoming Chicago Cultural Plan.

Finally, and closest to my heart, Third Coast Percussion and eighth blackbird kicked off the season with the aforementioned Reich Festival and followed up with a series of performances that were again and again revelatory in their seeming easy blend of dizzying virtuosity and contagious enthusiasm. TCP, four percussionists who are unnerving in terms of both talent and friendliness, grew more and more confident with each concert, this season tackling the unwieldy John Cage cannon, including a wonderful CD/DVD, and pushing forward on Renga, a fast, fragmented, fortuitous, funny work which to me is the first true musical expression of social media culture. I really can’t get enough of them, and I suspect the rest of the country will soon catch on.

Meanwhile, the birds workshopped new pieces by the three finalists in the 2011 Finale National Composition Contest, sponsored in conjunction with the American Composers Forum, partnered with the MCA for a pair of concerts that explored minimalism and “maximalism” in art and music, was awarded a Grammy Award for the performance on Lonely Motel: Music from Slide, returned to Millennium Park for a solo program of works with electronics, and generally undertook more initiatives than I can bear to mention.

Oh, did I mention that 47 musicians from 12 different ensembles got together to play Terry Riley’s In C?  That New Music Chicago developed a new look, added several new members, expanded its Board and arranged two Best Practices meeting for the whole field? Or that I hosted a series of New Music Happy Hours that gave musicians, composers, administrators, press and scholars the opportunity to get to know each other outside of the concert hall?  All that happened too.

I’ve heard of marriages where, even after many years, couples suddenly fall in love all over again.  This happens to me each time I hear eighth blackbird live.  With everything happening in Chicago now, and the collegial spirit shaping the community, it’s like I’m in an open relationship with the whole field.  Making me one very satisfied gal.


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