It’s always a good thing to have a trip correspond with some good new music concerts, and my week-long adventure to northern Illinois this past week allowed me to take Ellen McSweeney’s advice and attend two concerts in Chicago. Both events–the Chicago Composers Orchestra concert at the Garfield Park Conservatory and the Third Coast Percussion concert at the University of Chicago–were very successful and demonstrated why new music concerts can be diverse in content, in venue, and in audience to great effect.
The Chicago Composers Orchestra is a relatively new group in Chicago, having been formed in 2009 by Roosevelt University grads Brian Baxter and Randall West, with a mission for “performance and advocacy of orchestral music by living composers.” The event was entitled “Amidst Lush Plantlife,” reflecting their decision to perform at the Garfield Park Conservatory, a two-acre botanical conservatory with several large rooms filled with many species of trees, ferns, and assorted flora. The entire concert spanned no less than three separate rooms, starting off with Occupy Orchestra by Seattle-based Byron Au Yong. Yong spread the musicians around the enormous Palm Room and allowed the audience to move freely through the space, casually chatting while the performance took place. It was hard to miss how many families were in attendance during this first portion, as there were many small children with their parents eagerly walking up to each performer and listening with open ears.
Once the first work was finished, the audience was shepherded into the Fern Room where Baxter’s Spring Song for strings and percussion was performed; also spatial in nature, the room was the complete opposite of the first–whereas the big room allowed one to walk up to the performers easily, the Fern Room shielded the performers altogether from my vantage point and made for a completely different listening experience. The remainder of the concert was held in a slightly more traditional setting, with the Horticulture Room set up with folding chairs both for the performers and audience. Works by Chris Fisher-Lockhead, Bruce Saylor, and the world premiere of Pos Metaphonos by Lawrence Axelrod (which featured Chicago Symphony bass clarinetist J. Laurie Bloom) filled out the rest of the program.
Three things stood out for me at this event. Obviously the venue is about as non-traditional as you can get–sight-lines are rarely marred by cacti or cycads in other halls–and once you got used to the slight ambient hum and the occasional choir of crickets, acoustically it was actually quite good. The ensemble itself, consisting of Chicago performers primarily in their mid- to late-20s who volunteer their services (ably led by guest conductor Stephen Squires, filling in for music director Matthew Kasper), played every work with an intensity and passion that proved their serious commitment to the music. Finally, the size and makeup of the audience really caught me off guard; here you had a concert of contemporary works for chamber orchestra by not-famous composers and there were over 250 people in attendance on a Wednesday night. There were obviously a good number of other composers and musicians there, but they were outnumbered by families with kids and other community members who seemed to really enjoy themselves. There were several details that showed that CCO was being smart in generating and keeping a good audience, including serving beverages and forgoing a ticket price as well as cultivating a strong relationship with the conservatory.
Two days later I had the good fortune to attend Third Coast Percussion’s concert in the International House at the University of Chicago. Since their formation in 2005, Third Coast has become one of the most well-known percussion ensembles in the country. The concert, simply titled “Metal,” covered four works written for a wide variety of metal instruments by established composers from across the spectrum of percussion ensemble literature. Utilizing two additional percussionists (Ross Karre and Greg Beyer), Third Coast took the audience through a thoughtful and well-balanced program, from John Cage’s First Construction (in Metal) and David Skidmore’s mind-blowing performance of David Lang’s The Anvil Chorus to James Tenney’s Koan: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (my favorite performance of the evening) and Philippe Manoury’s massive Métal. Groups like Third Coast demonstrate why the percussion ensemble has become one of the staple instrumentations of contemporary music today.
The venue, compared to the CCO’s conservatory digs, was much more traditional in nature, though both groups utilized the spatial opportunities of their venues well–Third Coast’s performers began on stage and surrounded the audience by the third piece. As much as alternative venues have been celebrated over the past few years, one could not imagine this concert being as effective in a space that wasn’t as quiet and acoustically solid as the International House; the subtle interactions of timbres and harmonics in the Tenney would have been completely lost in a space with more ambient noise. The audience for this concert differed in several ways from the one at the conservatory. In general, they seemed to be relatively older and more formal than at the CCO concert; let’s say the number of bearded academics with horn-rimmed glasses had gone up considerably for this event. That being said, the size of the audience was practically the same and they were equally supportive in their ovations throughout the evening. This was not an event that audience members stormed out of, rather they seemed to either know what they were getting themselves into or were open enough to enjoy whatever was presented to them.
As there has been a fair amount of vitriol recently about the worth of one composer or another from within our own ranks, it was heartening to see two dramatically different and yet completely viable and successful concert events that were both celebrating contemporary concert music…especially in a city with a relatively young and emerging contemporary concert music scene. Both concerts had taken care of business as far as cultivating audiences, promoting their concerts, and making sure that the listeners were both involved and invited into the music-making process. The result of that hard work was an audience that was form-fitted for the occasion and ultimately a successful evening of music for all involved. This is not rocket science, as they say, and the more we focus on what is important and ignore the petty distractions of the here and now, the better.