An evening of premieres took place on Friday night at the Logan Center Performance Hall as the Grossman Ensemble offered its first ever public performance to a large audience in Hyde Park. Formed as the ensemble-in-residence for the new Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition at the University of Chicago, the Grossman Ensemble will be offering new works by leading and up-and-coming composers.
Grossman Ensemble performances reflect a new approach to composition and performance. The group will be working with the composers to sculpt each work, a process that will be documented for academic purposes. As concert preparations move forward, there will be open rehearsals allowing the public to witness the work in progress. Many pieces will result from ensemble commissions; all will be receiving world premieres. Different conductors will also be used for each performance. Friday night’s concert was conducted by Ben Bolter, a Chicago-based conductor, songwriter, and keyboardist.
The concert opened with Shulamit Ran’s new work, Grand Rounds. A longtime fixture in Chicago’s contemporary art music scene and professor emerita at U of C, Ran explained the three-month process that produced this piece. She described presenting her initial ideas to the ensemble, getting feedback, and then reworking them over several feedback iterations. She also described the challenge of writing for the Grossman’s specific 13-person arrangement of string quartet, wind quintet, harp, piano, and two percussionists.
Recognizing the significance of the occasion, Ran intended to write something that was “celebratory and uplifting.” Grand Rounds certainly fit this description. Opening with two notes passed between piano and vibraphone, the work gradually unfolded as the two notes were crafted into larger phrases, with the harp and clarinet joining the sound. It started very slow and measured, but soon broke into a faster pace as more instruments were added, seemingly at random, sometimes sounding only one note. But it all came back to the original two notes as the work came to an end. On Friday night the ensemble effectively captured the feel of Grand Rounds, as it did the other works throughout the evening.
Up next was the highlight of the evening, Actuate/Resonate by Sam Pluta, a composer, electronics performer, and assistant professor of music at U of C. He explained how he wrote the piece specifically to harness the extraordinary acoustics of the Logan Center Performance Hall, where even the quietest sounds resonate throughout the hall. The work explores how notes played individually or in tandem with nearby notes resonate through the space, create overtones, and then gradually peter out. The 13 musicians playing acoustic instruments were joined by electronic devices that subtly blended to create a unified sound that frequently masked the noisemaking device.
While most of Actuate/Resonate is quiet and slow, it started with a jarring outburst of percussion sounds that resembled the noises from a blaster flight in Star Wars. That intro was followed by super quiet notes played in solo and in tandem. The strings were particularly noteworthy. Their super soft playing created a drone effect that, while barely audible, would have been totally missed were they not playing at all. Percussion sounds from wood blocks and other instruments interrupted the effect. At times, the sound was reminiscent of a high-pitched tea kettle with slightly wavering tones. One especially memorable moment was what sounded like a baritone saxophone that, starting on its highest pitch, very gradually descended to the lowest notes on the register. The work ended with another, longer, jarring percussion outburst.
On the whole, Actuate/Resonate demonstrated the amazing acoustic characteristics of the Logan Center Concert Hall; it would be interesting to see how well it transfers to a different performance space. In any case, to be effective, precise playing from the ensemble is essential, and the Grossman Ensemble was completely up to the task on Friday night.
The quiet, pensive feeling established by Pluta was carried on by the next piece to receive its world premiere, Simple Fuel by Tonia Ko. A young composer currently engaged in postdoctoral research at the CCCC, Ko explained that Simple Fuel is about subtle changes in emotion, as represented by quiet movements in notes. It explores “what makes something move along” and “what makes things go fast and slow.” It opened with quiet sounds on the strings, played with serrated, comb-like rods, and quiet sliding rhythms on percussion played with brushes. Notes were held for a long time, but the sound was broken up by quick melodic rills. The opening sense of hesitation and anticipation gave way to acceleration and rapid movement.
While Simple Fuel was interesting, its placement in the program after a similar sounding work by Pluta gave it less of an impact. Combining into a single program individual musical works before they are actually written will create uncertainly as to how those pieces will ultimately mesh together. It would be interesting to see whether and how the programming choices and the collaborative way the pieces are composed will affect the final form of the individual works themselves.
The concert closed with a very different work, Lee, David Rakowski’s homage to his friend and composer Lee Hyla, who died in 2014. A professor of composition at Brandeis University near Boston, Rakowski frequently travelled to Chicago to work with the Grossman Ensemble as the piece took shape.
Rakowski explained how, in Lee’s three movements, he was inspired by the clarinet and saxophone pairing Hyla used in the composition We Speak Etruscan. In several passages of Lee, the clarinet, in its regular and lower, basset-horn form, played off of an alto or baritone saxophone. In the first movement Rakowski borrowed from Hyla’s themes, which at first came in the form of seemingly erratic melodic bursts overlying an aural fabric. The tunes eventually coalesced into a more coherent form, as the instruments played together. After a slow movement of quiet and plucked notes, a rapid scherzo closed the work, featuring, among other things, the violins played like guitars.
In its premier performance on Friday, the Grossman Ensemble filled the evening with wonder and, at times, awe. In premiering four new works, it demonstrated high class musicianship and offered big promises of what is to come. James Baker will conduct the next Grossman Ensemble concert on Friday, March 15, at the Logan Center, 7:30 pm; $15, free with student ID. There will be an open rehearsal on February 16.