Grossman Ensemble makes impressive debut in a new era for new music at UC

Sat Dec 08, 2018 at 5:13 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Grossman Ensemble made its debut Friday night at the Logan Center for the Arts. Photo: Mike Grittani

Contemporary music at the University of Chicago entered a new era Friday night with the debut of the Grossman Ensemble at the Logan Center for the Arts.

The 13-member performing coalition is the most prominent element of UC’s newly launched Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition (CCCC). The project was founded by UC philanthropists Sanford and Navah Grossman in a generous, still undisclosed amount (yet a clearly significant sum since it included naming rights). UC professor and composer Augusta Read Thomas was the prime mover behind the funding and establishment of CCCC and serves as director of both it and the Grossman Ensemble.

Perhaps inevitably there was a clubby feel to the Grossman Ensemble’s debut, with the large turnout dominated by UC faculty, students, friends and associates, all of whom seemed to know each other, with warm greetings, hugs and kisses aplenty. Outsiders may have felt a bit like they had wandered into an alumni reunion and were being politely tolerated for the occasion.

Thomas’s extended introductory remarks—delivered impressively from memory without notes— thanked not only the Grossman Ensemble’s eponymous benefactors who were in attendance, but nearly everyone associated with UC’s music department, UC Presents and associated school organizations.

Clearly this initiative is an important and greatly promising project for both UC and Chicago’s contemporary music scene. Still, despite Thomas’s long rollcall of gratitude, one sensed a missed opportunity in not drawing CCCC into a broader historical framework.

Unmentioned in spoken remarks nor in the evening’s program, were the new project’s not-insignificant forebears: the long-running Contempo series and its predecessor, the Contemporary Chamber Players—founded in 1964 by Ralph Shapey, who led the ensemble for nearly three decades. It was the iconoclastic teacher and composer Shapey who planted the school’s strong roots for music of living composers, a tradition that CCCC will now carry forward.

As CCCC and the Grossman Ensemble develop, it would also be worthwhile to cast a broader net in terms of both composers and musical styles. Of the four world premieres commissioned for Friday night’s debut concert, three were by composers affiliated with UC and/or the new project. One hopes that in coming seasons, the programs will be a bit less parochial and extend their reach to more composers that reside beyond the borders of the Hyde Park campus.

That aside, two of the four works premiered Friday, all conducted with alert confidence by Ben Bolter, were of more than passing interest. That’s a commendable batting average for any contemporary music event, let alone the  launch of a brand new ensemble.

The evening began with Shulamit Ran’s Grand Rounds. In her spoken remarks, Contempo’s former artistic  director (2002-2015) said she was honored to be given the opportunity to compose, as Thomas put it, “the very first piece on the very first program” of the Grossman Ensemble.

Ran added that she was also conscious of the challenge faced by all four commissioned composers: to write a 15-minute piece for large and unorthodox mixed chamber ensemble (string quartet, flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, horn, two percussionists, harp and piano) with a part for every player.

Grand Rounds opens quietly with piano and marimba notes, passing to clarinet and (a rather bloopy) horn as the tempo accelerates and the searching music modulates into convivial bonhomie. Ran efficiently works all members of what she called the “fixed-sized mini-orchestra” into the fabric as the music flits from section to section. Scored with Ran’s usual facility, Grand Rounds performed its celebratory function admirably, even if the work exhausts its material several minutes before the coda’s chimes fade into silence.

The most arresting music of the evening came from Sam Pluta, an assistant professor at UC and member of the Wet Ink Ensemble. 

Actuate/Resonate presents music with some welcome edge, bite and muscle. After a sharp percussive chord—a mix of high instruments and analog synthesizer—Pluta deconstructs the chord in mostly slow and spacious music (unusual for the composer, as he noted in his engaging introduction). The ensuing music is barely audible—there is a nocturnal mystery with cricket-like sounds in the distance, as wispy string tendrils from Spektral Quartet members merge with hushed electronics in a strange, unsettling sonic landscape broken up at intervals with the same violent chord. A synthesizer does a steep dive into a long, descent to a resonating subterranean bass note.

Just as we think the work is going to end in desultory fashion, the music segues into an almost Impressionistic pastoral for flute, harp, piano and marimba, punctured by grace notes of buzzy feedback-like electronics. The tempo picks up and the jagged fragments morph into an almost cartoon-like sonic assault (in a good way), rounded off with a neat electronic slide down to a sudden coda.    

Directed by Bolter with highly focused concentration and acute balancing, the Grossman Ensemble gave a terrific sendoff to Pluta’s Actuate/Resonate—music with a variety of compelling incident that holds one attention throughout.

One can’t say the same for Tonia Ko’s Simple Fuel. Ko, the postdoctoral researcher for CCCC, says that her work “explores concepts of movement: our emotional motivations, physical momentum, and the repetition of gestures.”

Unfortunately, Ko’s music is even less interesting than her description. The string players bow instruments with what look like long straws, and the flutist produces breathy sounds amid divers plink, plank, plunk. Ko’s meandering work sounds like a descendant of the arid, academic scores of the 1960s dressed in hip, contemporary garb. Even with this level of gleaming advocacy, Simple Fuel’s isolated timbres, segmented fragments and sonic effects never quite cohere or add up to an interesting whole.

The evening closed with music by David Rakowski, a professor at Brandeis University who was the only composer represented with no (discernible) UC link.

Rakowski’s Lee is a three-movement tribute to his departed friend and fellow composer Lee Hyla who died in Chicago at age 61 in 2014. Rakowski offered the most traditional music of the four works represented. He also contributed the most amusing introduction, asking “Since I’m last, I get to keep the mic, right?”

As the composer stated, Lee is “not a weepy elegy” but an affectionate yet unsentimental homage. The outer movements are jumpy, mercurial and mostly uptempo. Without quoting Hyla directly, Rakowski draws inspiration from favorite Hyla works; most prominent among these is We Speak Etruscan, reflected in the snazzy, jazz-like banter between bass clarinet and baritone saxophone, played with panache by Katie Schoepflin and Taimur Sullivan, respectively. The more reflective middle section gives a more somber reflection upon his friend’s passing, with some plaintive writing for woodwinds. 

In many ways Rakowski’s Lee made a fitting finale to the Grossman Ensemble’s debut: a tribute to a fellow composer (with a strong Chicago history) who has passed from the scene, presenting a sense of contemporary classical music as both a living tradition and a continuum—worthy qualities to keep in mind as UC’s laudable new initiative finds its way in the world.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Grossman Ensemble makes impressive debut in a new era for new music at UC”

  1. Posted Dec 08, 2018 at 6:00 pm by Bernard Rands/Augusta Read Thomas

    From CCCC Press Release:

    “The University of Chicago’s distinguished tradition of creating and presenting contemporary music is inspiring,” said Thomas. “The most generous way I can think to honor any rich tradition is to work vigorously to continue to keep it thriving, dynamic, and growing with artistic vision, diversity, talented artists, and passion.”

    Things of this kind about the Contemporary Chamber Players and Contempo have been said loud and clear from the stage many times in the past 2 years by Augusta Read Thomas. The onstage speech for this particular concert was focused on the Grossman’s and their generous gift. In addition very pertinent comments about the excellence of the musicians and about the important and rewarding process of rehearsing and polishing new works over a 3-month period were articulately stated.

  2. Posted Dec 10, 2018 at 10:54 pm by AConcernedMusician

    Interesting, I like that you point out some extremely relevant details, like how the remarks were delivered by memory (crucial to the performance) and how the Grossman’s donation amount is ‘still undisclosed’ (also really really important).

    Oh, and the University of Chicago doesn’t have a ‘School of Music’. It’s just got a couple of brilliant, award-winning, internationally acclaimed composers, but you’re right, it shouldn’t showcase them too much.

  3. Posted Dec 11, 2018 at 11:36 am by CARMEN-HELENA TELLEZ

    The readers thank Lawrence Johnson for his extensive chronicle and review of the inaugural concert of the Grossman Ensemble, its length and detail in correspondence with the importance of the event. The evening was, indeed, “impressive.” It is true that there were “hugs and kisses aplenty”. All musical genres have a community of followers, and it is no different for contemporary composition.

    This inaugural concert represented the continuation of the distinguished and pioneering work of promoting composers that the University of Chicago has developed for decades, initiated by Ralph Shapey and followed by Shulamit Ran and Marta Ptaszynska. I, for one, traveled two hours to be present, as a former resident conductor of the Contemporary Chamber Players, already relabeled as CONTEMPO, as I was once invited to conduct the American premiere of Shapey’s oratorio “Praise.” The reception after the concert surely intended to welcome everyone.

    Still, it must be admitted that the public dialogue tends to point out the isolation of contemporary composers from the public. The music is what creates the sense of inclusion and wonder, but I am sure Augusta Read Thomas and her collaborators reflect upon this and will continue to do so as part of the work of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition.

    This leads me to the selection of composers. The Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition represents, in my opinion, the evolution of a paradigm to its full expression. It seeks to make a mark nationally and internationally on the importance of music composition for society, with the intent to pursue full-fledge research and creative activity. The choice of composers affiliated to the CCCC for its inaugural concert with the Grossman Ensemble is a logical decision. All the works were excellent and distinctive, including the composition by Tonia Ko, the postdoctoral fellow, which I found imaginative, colorful and atmospheric. I was left dumbfounded by the harshness of Mr. Johnson’s review towards a young artist. I could not disagree more. I anticipate Tonia Ko will have a great career.

    Still, disagreements of this nature are common in the arts, and only history proves or disproves the initial perception. In the meantime, I hope that Mr. Johnson continues to invest his time and expertise so generously on the work of the Grossman Ensemble and the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition. We are aware it takes time, effort, and even, personal vulnerability. The artistic process is never complete without it.

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