The Grossman Ensemble opened its second season on Friday night with a delightful program of world premiers conducted by Michael Lewanski at the Logan Center of Performing Arts in Hyde Park. This 13-person group is the ensemble-in-residence for the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, which is housed at the University of Chicago.
The ensemble commissions and premieres new music by leading and up-and-coming composers using a collaborative approach to composition. In opening remarks, ensemble co-Director Anthony Cheung described it as a “Google Docs” approach, where composers can bounce ideas off the players and hear suggestions and feedback in the same interactive way that documents are collaboratively written online. Several months before the performance, the composer, the ensemble, and the conductor, who changes from concert to concert, meet, interact, and rehearse. Composers can bring nebulous ideas or nearly completed scores. Together, the composer and performers sculpt the final piece. The public can view the creative process through open rehearsals, and the process is documented for academic purposes. The actual performance represents more than a simple interpretation of a completed score. Energy comes from the buy-in and sense of ownership that the musicians have with the piece.
Friday night’s concert opened with Winter Music, a three-movement piece by Canadian composer Alison Yun-Fei Jiang, a PhD candidate at the U of C. In remarks before the performance, Jiang described the inspiration she got from working with the Grossman Ensemble. She also noted the uncanny fortune of premiering a piece about the Canadian winter in December in Chicago.
The initial flakes in “Snowfall” are represented by two high descending notes, slowly repeated several times on the piano. The storm’s intensity gradually builds as the woodwinds join in, followed by other players, and the two notes are expanded into longer melodies. Before long, the snowstorm gets more aggressive. In “Footprints,” sounds scamper across the stage, like small animals running across the snow. As the third movement “Prayers” end, the music returns to the two notes, but this time they ascend.
One of the outcomes of the Grossman Ensemble’s approach is a remarkable cohesion, which was amply displayed on Friday night. Noteworthy were the melodic runs during Winter Music that started on the cello and other lower registered instruments and rose as they were passed on to other instruments. Although the timber shifted as different instruments came in and out, it was almost as if the runs were played by a single player.
Next on the program was Ritmicas, a five-movement work by CCCC’s visiting Distinguished Guest Composer Tania León. In remarks before the performance, Cuba native León described how she became a composer after arriving in New York over 50 years ago. Her first composition was a ballet for the then-emerging Dance Theater of Harlem, which she helped form. Ritmicas draws on intense African, Caribbean, and Latin rhythms that underpin each movement and was inspired by Cuban composer Amadeo Roldán, the first composer to incorporate these rhythms into western, classical music.
The various movements in Ritmicas take full advantage of the musical forces the Grossman Ensemble has to offer. The first movement starts with a swirling, circular rhythm on drums, congas, and marimba, which are soon joined by the other instruments. The second movement shifts initial focus to the woodwinds, and the third movement starts with the clarinet and string quartet. The piano and harp play off each other to begin the fourth movement, and everyone starts together for the finale. Unrelenting, explosive rhythms set the overall feel of the piece, but melodic outbursts come through.
While the stage was being set up for the next work, ensemble violist Doyle Armbrust, who also is the violist for the Spektral Quartet, whose members make up the Grossman’s string section, interviewed León about her experience working with the ensemble. She was especially complimentary of the flexibility they showed while working on the composition and trying out different things.
Without intermission, the performance continued with the next work, Double Allegories by co-Director Cheung, who explained how this work explores the dualities between seasons, senses, and elements. Starting with “… of touch/heat,” Cheung’s score brings out the variety of sounds that instruments can make, above and beyond their traditional styles of play. Before the piece started, he illustrated the different touches used in the opening notes played by harp, cello, flute, and marimba. The effect is the unexpected sustaining of notes, unusual overtone patterns, and added sources of textured rhythm.
Double Allegories gave the players ample opportunity to show off their dexterous playing abilities. Throughout the work, they were called on to touch their instruments differently, and they effect was striking. The challenge was, being performed after so much else on the program, the music itself was not all that distinctive when compared to Jiang’s Winter Music. It all sort of ran together. Double Allegories was interesting, but it would have been more enjoyable had it followed an intermission, which allows listeners to stretch and clear their heads.
Composer and U of C PhD candidate Will Myers described the final piece Workaround as his effort to undo the subservient relationship musicians have with the musical scores to which they are expected to adhere. He noted that, in reproducing music, players are expected to sound smooth and seamless. But, what if, instead, they are intended to sound stressed and overworked? What if they ultimately rebelled?
It is always great to see an interesting concept come to fruition in a wonderful way, and Workaround succeeded. It starts with a cacophony that returns now and again. As Myers promised, it is as if the musicians are trying to escape those sounds, but are forced back to them by the score. The program notes correctly mentioned that it has the same effect as the opening theme of a traditional rondo, which returns several times. To allow the performers to escape the unpleasant sounds mandated by the score, Workaround ends with the performers ad-libbing, getting up from their places, walking around the stage, and exiting while still playing. While unscripted, the music on Friday night still sounded clear and coherent, which illustrated, yet again, how the Grossman’s creative process resulted in better player cohesion and interaction.
Conductor Jeremy Hou picks up the baton for the Grossman Ensemble’s next performance on Friday, March 13, 2020, at the Logan Center Performance Hall. $15, students free. See CCCC for more information about tickets and open rehearsals.