Preview: Contemporary Classical Music Takes Center Stage at the Ear Taxi Festival

Augusta Read Thomas Leads the Ear Taxi Festival. Photo by Anthony Barlich Augusta Read Thomas Leads the Ear Taxi Festival. Photo by Anthony Barlich. An underappreciated facet of Chicago’s rich cultural offerings goes on display next week when the first-ever, multi-day festival devoted to contemporary classical art music begins. For six days--October 5-10--the Ear Taxi Festival (ETF) showcases the huge breadth and depth of the creators and performers of modern classical music in Chicago. The works of 88 Chicago-based composers will be played by 25 ensembles made up of over 350 local musicians. And 54 new pieces will receive world premiere performances. There will also be five sound installations around the city, two music marathons, numerous panel discussions, and several opportunities to meet the artists. The list of ensembles is impressive and deep. It includes jazz pianist Patricia Barber, the International Contemporary Ensemble and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Several local chamber ensembles will also perform, including Spektral Quartet, Third Coast Percussion, Ensemble Dal Niente, Chicago Harp Quartet, Arcomusical, and Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music Contemporary Ensemble. The festival is the brain child of Augusta Read Thomas, the Grammy Award winning artist who served for many years as the composer in residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, working with Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim. In an interview, she shared how she was walking through Millennium Park in October 2013, reflecting on her own love of music and thinking about all of the vibrant new music, ensembles, and living composers who write contemporary classical art music in Chicago. “Citizenship has always been very important to me,” she explained. “Giving back to the profession and supporting the work of my colleagues is a privilege and responsibility I take extremely seriously. I deeply love classical art music and want to support it.” Thomas is extremely proud to be part of what she considers to be the most vibrant contemporary classical music scene in the United States and hopes that the festival displays and brings attention to that vibrancy. Since that fateful stroll through Millennium Park, she has worked tirelessly to pull this event together, doing it “in an a’ la carte fashion: bringing in piece by piece, aspects including fund raising, getting concert venues, speaking with musicians and composers, hiring stage managers, arranging for catering,” she recalled. “It is my hope that Ear Taxi Festival’s showcase of Chicago’s inventive and original composers, musicians and creators of contemporary classical music will focus interest in and support of the diversity and richness of our city’s creative, musical minds.” The schedule was designed to mimic the festival’s name. “Three years ago, when I came up with the name Ear Taxi Festival, I had the image of a composer’s head (imagine the famous bust of Beethoven) with a line of 10 taxi cabs driving out of each ear,” explained Thomas. “ETF will take you on many aural taxi rides, each one fresh, fun, engaging, and unique and played by a huge array of world-class musicians.” None of the concerts take place simultaneously, so people can, indeed, attend a concert at one venue and take a taxi to the next. Thomas expects to be one of the people who attend everything. The performances are 45-90 minutes with several relatively short works played by a variety of artists. Thomas’ intention is that this be totally informal and relaxed, with a different kind of feel from other classical music concerts. “I anticipate that people will feel casual and comfortable,” she said. “Chat and have a drink with the musicians, composers, and other music lovers.” Audiences can wear whatever attire is comfortable. Composers will be present and can meet the audience and discuss their works after the performances. One of the main venues Harris Theater allows patrons to bring beverages into the auditorium. “I hope that ETF can inspire us as we all discover new ways to appreciate this ever-expanding art form,” she added. While Thomas certainly wants the festival to attract a large audience, she is also excited to give Chicago composers and ensembles the opportunity to meet, exchange ideas, and expose their own audiences to the works of each other. Only one work by each composer will be performed during the festival, which means that every concert includes several composers. “I hope that a ripple effect occurs,” she reflected, “where each composer and ensemble attracts their own audiences, who end up hearing works performed by other composers and ensembles they don’t usually hear.” She would love it if the audience of one composer and ensemble takes an interest in others, buys their music, and attends their concerts. Thomas’ own musical contribution to the Ear Taxi Festival will be performed by the Spektral Quartet and Third Coast Percussion at the Harris Theater on Saturday night, October 8. Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals), the first work ever written for an octet of string quartet and percussion, is based on the Greek Goddess who drives the moon chariot across the sky every night. “It’s a colorful, rhythmic, dance-like animation that’s full of sparkle and optimism,” Thomas said. “It’s whimsical and light.” This work, which will be receiving its Chicago premiere, is very much in keeping with her positive and optimistic compositional style. Although each composer will have one piece performed in concert, individual movements or snippets of larger works will be performed during a live WFMT broadcast and other media-driven events. For example, members of the CSO will be performing Thomas’ Triple Marionette, a brief movement from the trio Klee Musings, live on WFMT from the PianoForte Studios on Friday, October 7, at noon. The Ear Taxi Festival coincides with the Chicago Marathon, where festival performers will be singing and playing the national anthem. On Saturday, October 8, the Quince Vocal Quartet, which is comprised of four women singing a’ capella, will start off the 5K run; on the following day, Whitney Morrison will be performing for the marathon itself. After viewing the races spectators can head over to the Chicago Cultural Center for musical marathons. Starting at noon, new classical music will be played most of the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday, with different performers taking the helm at the top of every hour. Admission is free. Other events during the six days include public micro-performances on Chicago’s EL platforms and meet-the-artist discussions every day at the Harris Theater, which, on Saturday, will host NewMusicBox LIVE! and reception, featuring three composers speaking about their lives and work. There will be a Blowout Party at Constellation on Sunday evening. “All of the artists on the festival live in Chicago and welcome the chance to meet and greet you, their city’s neighbors who are in audience,” concluded Thomas. “Do not be shy! Introduce yourself and start up a conversation with these brilliant and compelling artists.” The Ear Taxi Festival runs from Wednesday, October 5, through Monday, October 10. Concerts will take place downtown at the Harris Theater, the Chicago Cultural Center, and Curtiss Hall. There will also be performances at Constellation on Western Avenue, Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, and the PianoForte Studios in the South Loop. Single event tickets range from $5-$26, although some are free. Holders of the $200 VIP pass get into every concert, have access to preferred seating, and may attend all various other events. The $150 Festival Pass ($100 for students) grants access to all performances. The $36 Flex Pass ($24 for students) allows purchasers to attend three concerts of their choosing at the Harris Theater. After all expenses are paid, any leftover proceeds will be distributed to the composers and performers. For more information, festival passes and tickets, check out:  
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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.