Review: Grossman Ensemble Gives a Dull Performance

One of the leading incubators of new music in Chicago is housed at the Chicago Center of Contemporary Composition at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. The 13-member Grossman Ensemble works with composers in the creation of new music in a truly collaborative fashion. Composers have a variety of sounds and timbers at their disposal, including string quartet, piano, harp, flute, clarinet, oboe, saxophone, horn, and two percussionists.

Every few months the Grossman Ensemble has a concert giving the world premiere of four brand new works created in this way. Last night was their latest performance. Each concert uses a different conductor; yesterday James Baker conducted. Performances take place in a fabulous setting, the main auditorium at Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park.

The times I heard the Grossman Ensemble were wonderful experiences. Their very first concert from December 2018 featured a variety of new works by Shulamit Ran, Sam Pluta, Tonio Ko, and David Rakowski. As I wrote at the time, “in its premier performance on Friday, the Grossman Ensemble filled the evening with wonder and, at times, awe.”

Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, Augusta Read Thomas Executive Director.

Last night was my first opportunity to hear them since the 2019-2020 season was interrupted by COVID-19. Unfortunately, the impressions from 2018 were very much lacking after the concert, which demonstrated a potential downside to a collaborative approach to composition.

First up was Christopher Trapani’s No Window Without a Wall, which was dedicated to the late trumpeter/composer John Hassell. While Grossman Ensemble doesn’t have a trumpet player, it does have horn and saxophone players. Trapani combined these with the cello to mimic trumpet sounds. Before the piece, he noted that even open windows can have barriers.

No Window Without a Wall opened with a crashing chord followed by slow and measured sound effects caused by brushes on drums, squeaks, quick slides on the strings, and seemingly random notes on the winds. Sparse chords on the piano break things up. Throughout the piece, the piano and harp make harmonic sounds while percussionists expanded their sound effects. Toward the end, it speeds up to a climax, but slows back down to conclude. It was mainly sound effects with little melody.

No Window Without a Wall was pleasant enough. The trouble was, the same words I just used to describe it could be used for the remaining pieces on the program.

The next piece Time Time Time by Zosha Di Castri had some real potential in concept. As Zosha pointed out in the program notes and explanation from the stage, time seemed to do weird things while the world shut down during the pandemic. Sometimes time went by rapidly, sometimes slowly, sometimes it seemed to go at different paces simultaneously.

Unfortunately, these distinctions were not evident in Time Time Time. Like No Window Without a Wall, Time Time Time started very slowly, got a bit frantic toward the end, but returned to the very slow pace at which it started. The gestures used to distinguish the different time flows didn’t have that effect. All the while, it reused some of the same sound effects heard in the previous piece, simply placing them in a different order. Again, there was little melody. A better approach would have been to use a before-and-after construct, comparing how time moved before the pandemic to how it moved afterwards. If nothing else, this could have added some liveliness to the evening’s program.

The one piece that was very different in make-up, if not in tempo, was Neshamah by David Serkin Ludwig, which was written in memory of his uncle, famed pianist Peter Serkin, who passed away before the pandemic took hold. (His grandfather was another famed pianist, Rudolph Serkin.) In his notes, Ludwig describes it as “built out of a Hebrew chant.”

To do so, Ludwig has the instruments making tremolo-like sounds that move up and down their respective instruments’ registers. It was the one truly interesting piece on the program, and the most original. However, like the other works, it started slow, sped up for a climax, but ended up slow. Had it been performed by itself, Neshamah would have had more of an impact. In the context of Friday night’s concert, its affect was muted.

The concert ended with Theatre of Shadows (in Memoriam Christian Boltanski) by Frédéric Durieux. It offered more in the way of melody, with some interesting chordal interplay between the instruments. However, it was still very similar to the previous works’ tempo and use of the same sound effects.

When the concert finished, I felt like I had just heard four variations on a single theme, and a not very interesting one. Except for Ludwig’s piece, there was little to distinguish one composition from another. This revealed the potential downside to the Grossman Ensemble’s approach to collaboration with composers. The Grossman’s influences and suggestions apparently were common to each piece, with the outcome having a cookie-cutter effect. Played separately, each piece might have been interesting. Played together, it was more of the same.

As they gear up for the 2022-23 season, I hope the Grossman Ensemble takes greater effort to ensure that the pieces that emerge from their collaborations are truly different from one another. Key to this may be choosing works that are already more different from the start. There should be at least one piece in each performance that is up-tempo from beginning to end. Without something lively, a concert can get very dull, as was the case last night.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for your response. I have seen and written about other excellent performances of the Grossman Ensemble. My disappointment was based on high expectations formed from previous encounters. Compared to what I had seen previously, last night’s program just didn’t measure up. However, I believe very much in what you’re doing, and I will be back. All the best!!

  2. Hi Louis. Thanks for being there, but sorry you were so disappointed with our performance. I play oboe (and English horn and oboe d’amore) in the ensemble. Next time you’re able to join us, please stick around for the reception and talk to one or two of the musicians. You seem to have a few serious misunderstandings about how our process works. It’s an unusual one, but it is not my role as a performer in the ensemble to assign a composer to write, for example, an “up-tempo” piece. That’s all I’ll say here. Thanks again and we hope you’ll join us in the future — we can guarantee that no two Grossman Ensemble concerts will be alike!

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