Best of 2016: Classical Music

3cr-bestof2016-2 Since joining the team at Third Coast Review last winter, I have had the privilege of seeing and reviewing several excellent concerts. While 2016 was unpleasant and disappointing in many ways, Chicago’s rich, classical music scene consistently provided comfort and inspiration. Highlights included Music of the Baroque playing three early, rarely performed Haydn symphonies; Rachel Barton Pine and Matthew Lipman performing in the 10th anniversary concert of Music Institute of Chicago Academy; Brazilian guitarists the Assad family playing classical and modern music from Brazil and Spain; and Anderson and Roe showing off their innovative performing style and repertoire with the Chicago Sinfonietta. Chicago’s Orion Ensemble and New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center also gave great performances in 2016. Most recently, Yo-Yo Ma and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago performed Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and the Windy City Treble Quoire and Windy City Gay Chorus sang in Don We Now, their annual holiday concert. The Emerson String Quartet plays a marathon at Ravinia. Photo by Lisa Mazzucco. The Emerson String Quartet plays a marathon at Ravinia. Photo by Lisa Mazzucco. Two events were especially memorable. First, in a marathon, three-hour concert at Ravinia in July, the Emerson String Quartet gave an energetic, vibrant, yet nuanced performance of the six quartets that comprise Haydn’s Opus 76. In doing so, the Emersons demonstrated the musical breadth and vision Haydn displayed at the pinnacle of a long, marvelous career. I have never had an opportunity to see all of these great works performed in a single concert, and, in any ordinary year, this concert would have been the year’s best. But this was no ordinary year. Following three years of careful planning by a group of local musicians led by Augusta Read Thomas, the one-of-a-kind, six-day Ear Taxi Festival showcased the huge breadth and depth of contemporary classical art music in Chicago. The works of 88 Chicago composers were played by 25 ensembles made up of over 350 local musicians. 55 works received world premiere performances. There were also five sound installations around the city, two music marathons, numerous panel discussions, parties, and several opportunities to meet the artists. The Ear Taxi Festival Brought out Chicago's Best in 2016. There were many excellent performances during the Ear Taxi Festival, but the concert that ended Saturday night, October 8, was one of the best I have ever experienced. It started with Third Coast Percussion performing the world premiere of their new work Reaction Yield and, joined by the Spektral Quartet, giving the Chicago premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals), the only octet ever written for percussion and string quartet. This was followed by the Chicago Harp Quartet playing the world premiere of Plectra, by Carolyn O’Brien. Then, performing on berimbaus, an African-Brazilian instrument, the Arcomusical sextet performed Alexis C. Lamb’s Apenas Seja and Georg Beyer’s Berimbau Sextet No. 1. Capping off this evening was the world premiere of Drew Baker’s NOX, performed by the All Ear Taxi Festival Musicians. In a darkened Harris Theater, the ensemble members were scattered all over the house, some on-stage, some in the aisles, and others up in the balcony. They were taking directions from conductor Ben Bolter, who, facing the audience from the back of the stage, was the only illuminated person in the whole hall. He started by pointing to the various groupings of musicians, who, beginning with whispers, gradually created a brilliant crescendo that got to ear-splitting levels. As the music intensified, he was wildly swinging his arms, increasing the number of fingers as he pointed around the hall to the scattered musicians. Augusta Read Thomas Leads the Ear Taxi Festival. Photo by Anthony Barlich Augusta Read Thomas. Photo by Anthony Barlich The music of Baker and the presence of Bolter were so engrossing, when silence was restored, I discovered I had been perspiring and my body had been trembling. There was a sense of total awe. Something totally extraordinary had just taken place, greatness defined, truly one of a kind. The hope is that maybe, just maybe, I will experience something this great once again. The Ear Taxi Festival was a one-off event, so there won’t a repeat in 2017. But I am confident that Chicago’s classical music scene will be fun and eventful.
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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.