Chicago Chamber Musicians to mark 25 years with an eye toward the future

Tue Sep 20, 2011 at 10:30 am

By Wynne Delacoma

For most small arts organizations, the odds of surviving to celebrate a silver anniversary fall somewhere between slim and none. But this season one of Chicago’s most distinguished ensembles, Chicago Chamber Musicians, will celebrate its 25th season.

The group’s subscription series — six programs, each performed in Evanston and Chicago — opens Sunday with a guest ensemble, the American Brass Quintet, on the roster. During the season CCM members will appear as soloists in pieces by composers ranging from Cimarosa to John Harbison. Reprises of some of the ensemble’s most popular repertoire, including Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and Schubert’s Octet, are also on the schedule.

The odds were daunting in 1986 when CCM was founded. But from the very beginning, when Larry Combs and Gail Williams, both Chicago Symphony Orchestra members, banded together with violinist Joseph Genualdi and pianist Deborah Sobol to form CCM, the prospects for long-term success were unusually bright.

There was the instant cachet of the CSO connection. With CSO players on board, audiences immediately assumed that the new group would have the musical chops to produce top-notch concerts. And the ensemble’s goals were high.

“Our hope,” said Combs, who retired from the CSO in 2008 after 30 years as principal clarinetist, “was to establish an institution for chamber music similar to what the CSO has or Lyric Opera. We wanted it to develop into something really major and important in the city. We were pretty certain we would have the support of Chicago’s chamber music lovers.”

At the time, the University of Chicago had an ambitious chamber music series that presented important international ensembles, a series that continues today. The CSO sponsored a series, also still running, that presented symphony members in chamber music ensembles, some of them organized on an ad hoc basis.

But Combs and his CCM colleagues were looking for something more rigorous. They modeled their group after one of the most respected chamber music organizations in the world, the Marlboro Music Festival. Founded in Vermont  in 1951, Marlboro is a summer festival where serious musicians, students as well as professionals, immerse themselves in the chamber music repertoire.  At various points during their careers, Combs, Sobol and Genualdi had studied and performed at Marlboro. “We were impressed by the repertoire,” Combs said. “They did very serious work and very serious repertoire.”

“I was at Marlboro about 17 years,’’ said Genualdi, who served as CCM’s artistic director for 17 years before relinquishing the post earlier this year. “We had had this incredible experience of chamber music concerts under these utopian circumstances that Marlboro could afford. You had concerts where you could hear just anything at all.”

CCM started small. They served as resident artists with WFMT-FM in 1986 and did some educational outreach. They offered free lunchtime concerts each month at the Chicago Cultural Center downtown, an initiative that continues today.

Launching their first subscription season in 1988, the founding foursome gradually expanded their ranks. Currently CCM has 14 members. CSO members belonging to the group include Michael Henoch, assistant principal oboe, bassoonist Dennis Michel, trombonist Michael Mulcahy and double bassist Bradley Opland. Rounding out CCM’s lineup are two of Chicago’s leading trumpet players: Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer; violinist Jasmine Lin, violist Rami Solomonow, cellist Clancy Newman and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu.

“Not only did we want to have brass,’’ said Genualdi, “we wanted to do these larger 20th century works that always are calling for a trumpet or a trombone. We thought it would be unique and exciting, that we could program anything and everything.”

Educational and outreach concerts were part of the CCM mix from the beginning. There have been rollicking family concerts in the Field Museum, and a continuing Sounds and Spaces series with CCM performing in architectural gems such as Unity Temple in Oak Park and the historic Charles G. Dawes House in Evanston. The ensemble has toured, commissioned new works and issued CDs.

A high point of CCM’s 25 years was its three-year Music at the Millennium series offered between 1998 and 2000. Audiences still recall the excitement of hearing Pierre Boulez, then CSO principal guest conductor, leading CCM players in important chamber pieces by Stravinsky, Varese, Elliott Carter and Schoenberg.

That series morphed into CCM’s annual Composer Perspectives, which spotlights living composers who organize CCM concerts featuring their own music and that of other composers. This season’s Composer Perspectives are Dec. 7 with Lowell Lieberman and Apr. 11 with Aaron Jay Kernis.

Trumpeter Charles Geyer and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu are the new co-artistic directors of Chicago Chamber Musicians.

Starting this season, CCM is starting a new chapter. Geyer and Liu are its new co-artistic directors, and the ensemble’s staff, board and musicians have been looking closely at long-term goals. Like most arts groups coping with the poor economy, CCM has seen audiences shrink for its subscription concerts.  Its budget, which topped $1 million in the heady period of Music at the Millennium and the years following, is currently $850,000.

One brand-new venture will bring CCM to Mayne Stage, a snazzy cabaret setting on the Far North Side that offers an eclectic schedule of pop, jazz and classical performances.  Just steps from the Morse Avenue Red Line El stop at 1328 W. Morse, it will be the site of three abbreviated CCM concerts, each beginning at 6:30 p.m. The idea is that busy music lovers will drop in after work, sit down with a drink, listen to a short chamber music program and talk with the artists and a guest program host. The series, titled Classical Conversations, runs Nov. 16, Mar. 21 and May 2.

“There was discussion about finding ways to develop more audiences,” said Geyer. “Younger people, [reaching] places where nobody has really heard about us or heard our music. We visited Mayne Stage before the summer started, and we were taken by it. There’s a spectacular piano that’s stored in a climate-controlled area below the stage. We’re really looking forward to those concerts.”

According to Geyer, CCM also is looking to expand its collaborations with top-level guests like the American Brass Quintet and local groups including dance companies. They want to increase their international touring, and a tour of China this spring is in the works. Members will be more involved in school programs, and CCM will continue to commission new works and perform contemporary pieces.

“The artists are so great,” said Liu, who joined CCM two years ago after many years living and working in Philadelphia. Though he relocated to Chicago, he continues to teach at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. “There is such potential for this organization to be much, much more well-known that is it. Hopefully, our ideas will bear fruit very soon.”

The Chicago Chamber Musicians’ brass players join forces with the American Brass Quintet for CCM’s season-opening program 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston and 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater. 312-225-5226.

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