The six-day Ear Taxi Festival (ETF), which concluded on Monday evening, was an extraordinary event that shined a bright light on Chicago’s contemporary classical art music scene. Our local scene proved eminently worthy of that attention. I went to concerts on four of the six days and was astonished at the depth, breadth, quality, and vision of musicians who compose and perform contemporary classical music in Chicago.
Having only previously viewed the scene from a distance, I had no idea that Chicago boasted as many as 87 living composers of all ages creating contemporary classical art music. The wealth of Chicago-based talent was also impressive, with over 350 people performing. With so many performers involved, it is hard to believe that anyone was missing, but there were a few local ensembles that were not on stage.
In an interview a week before the festival, event organizer Augusta Read Thomas said that she wanted to showcase the vibrancy of Chicago’s contemporary music scene and to provide a space where composers and players could mingle with each other and with their audiences. From my vantage point the ETF fulfilled this desire magnificently. The composers were on hand during the performances, and they frequently addressed the audience before and afterwards, which definitely added meaning and enjoyment to their music. The receptions, facilitated discussions, and gatherings before and after performances allowed audience members to interact with the composers and performers.
I was also deeply impressed by the show of support for the festival by Chicago. Audiences were large, with more than 500 people at Harris Theater on Saturday night and a 100 people attending the Sunday music marathon. The discussion sessions were also crowded. The make-up of the audiences was varied. There were certainly many musicians and composers from within the contemporary music scene, but there were also outsiders simply seeking entertainment. While it was hard to tell who was who, audiences responded with palpable energy and enthusiasm.
It was also great that ETF organizers chose not to limit participation to a particular style of music. There were vocal and instrumental works for large and small ensembles; there were jazz-inspired pieces, minimalism, and solo works.
Many of the concerts I regularly attend include modern and contemporary works in their programs, and over the years I have explored the work of several modern and contemporary composers. The Ear Taxi Festival gave me an immersion available nowhere else. While I enjoyed myself immensely, after Saturday night’s concert, which, as I have previously written, was a special brand of amazing, there came a point when it all started to blend together and seemed rather repetitive. I am not suggesting that any individual work was unoriginal, or would not have been interesting had it been performed in a stand-alone concert, but there was an awful lot to digest, and fatigue had begun to set in.
Another thing that started to wear on me was the overwhelming reliance on the single musical key of dissonance. While a couple of pieces came close, none of the 40 or so works that I heard was completely in a traditional major or minor key. I found myself thinking, “Gee, it would be great to hear something in good ‘ole C-major once in a while.” I discovered that I most enjoy contemporary classical music when it’s taken in smaller doses or mixed in with more traditional forms of classical music.
Looking beyond my own minor irritants, the Ear Taxi Festival revealed the existence of a vibrant and meaningful culture in contemporary classical music, and that Chicago is awash in it. Chicago’s scene is amply supplied with youth, experience, talent and vision. While there was little talk of holding a second Ear Taxi Festival, I hope that this year’s event created momentum with which the community can continue to flourish.
Before signing off on the Ear Taxi Festival, I did attend much of the music marathon at the Chicago Cultural Center on Sunday, day 5. Several works were particularly interesting. In Preston Bradly Hall the Chicago Composers Orchestra performed the world premiere of Olivia Block’s Lazarus, a piece inspired by the old department store of the same name. The score divides the orchestra into two, with two conductors simultaneously playing overlapping music, starting with sounds from the store’s ventilation system and Musak.
Bernard Rands’ Concertino was performed by the DePaul Ensemble 20+, Michael Lewanski conducting. It was like a concerto for solo oboe, with the cadenza coming first. Andrew Nogal played the oboe. Up next was the world premiere of Eliza Brown’s A Soundwalk for Resi. Sung by soprano Jessica Aszodi, Soundwalk was inspired by Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, with lyrics supplemented by Brown herself. The sirens from emergency vehicles on Michigan Avenue contributed to the work’s overall feeling.
A little removed from Preston Bradly Hall is the smaller Claudia Cassidy Theater, where the MAVerick Ensemble played the world premiere of Janice Misurell-Mitchell’s Clameurs, Melodie. This work was an interesting duo for cello and percussion that called for spoken words in English and French from the performers.
The world premiere of Amy Wurtz’ Songs and Dances, with the composer on the piano and Alyson Berger playing cello was the closest thing to traditional tonality I had heard. It is in several sections. Slower, song-like passages with the melody taken up by the cello were reminiscent of Brahms’ Cello Sonata in e-minor, Op. 38. The songs were broken up by dance-like pieces in 6/8 and 2/4 time. While this performance was the official world premiere, fragments of this work had already been played on WFMT’s Pianoforte Foundation broadcast two days earlier.