Review: Grossman Ensemble Closes the Season in a Lively Way

The Grossman Ensemble gave a lively and enjoyable performance at Hyde Park’s Logan Center Performance Hall on Friday evening. It is the resident group at the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, which is based at the University of Chicago.

This ensemble’s mission is to sponsor and promote new music by commissioning composers to write something for their 13-person ensemble, which is made up of a string quartet, five wind and horn players, a pianist, a harpist, and two percussionists. In commissioning new music, they collaborate with the composers, who can test out ideas as the music takes shape. Their hour-long concerts offer world premieres of four works that have benefited from this collaboration.

Each concert includes a guest conductor, who also participates in the music creation process. Timothy Weiss took the helm on Friday, which concluded their fifth year. (Of course, they lost a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Friday’s program offered welcome variety. It even opened with a mystery. San Francisco-based composer Kurt Rohde offered three of his six The Hardest Folksongs Never Written. As Rohde explained, the songs reflected modern communities who had not lived through an age that produced folksongs. After writing the songs, Rohde described how he then mashed them all up, creating what he called “screwed up folksongs.”

The mystery was that the printed program, while showing the songs’ lyrics, did not include a vocalist to sing them. The opening song, “6/7ths Of the Way to the End of the World,” featured rapid sounds from an organized cacophony. It was an enjoyable display of a feature for which the Grossman Ensemble has become known: precision. The mystery was resolved toward the end of the song when the players themselves started chanting the words. It was a marvelous, unexpected effect.  

Up next was a work that applied to music a concept from painting. The late painter/print maker Helen Frankenthaler, whose work has been on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, uses the technique of soak stain, where diluted paint pigments are applied to canvases and prints resulting in larger, but thinly spread layers of color. Los Angeles-based composer Sarah Gibson applied the concept to music, and her Soak Stain premiered on Friday night.

This came through in the opening, where the top three strings played on their bridges while the cello offered a tune. It also came through in the way the melodies blended into one another from the different instruments.

While enjoyable, Soak Stain did not leave much of an impression, a recurring concern with some of the other compositions that the Grossman Ensemble has premiered over the years. After all, 12-minute contemporary compositions for the same 13 performers tend to sound alike. There should be something special about each new work, but that is not always the case.

The third piece was Cycles by New York composer Jason Eckardt, who shared about the recent death of his beloved dog Rosie. As it happens, the life cycle that includes death was an inspiration for this piece.

It starts in a similar way to one of Rohde’s songs, very slowly with sparse riffs on the piano, harp, and percussion. It was soon joined in by the instruments playing a single note or a pulse. The order in which the instruments played them reflected the cycles.

The slow pace was preserved throughout the piece, and the score included lower pitched winds, such as bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. The performance required absolute precision from Grossman Ensemble players, as each note needed to be perfectly timed to preserve the cycles.

By the time Cycles ended, it seemed incomplete. It would have benefited from some faster passages, maybe a second movement that explored other cycles. It’s a rich topic that warrants greater exploration. In its current form, Cycles leaves a lot on the table.

The concert concluded with a world premiere by a Chicago-based composer, Augusta Read Thomas. Terpsichore’s Box of Dreams is a wonderful suite of 10 movements based on the goddess of dance and delight from Greek mythology, a regular source of inspiration for Thomas’ music.

Augusta Read Thomas. Photo Courtesy of Nimbus Alliance Records.

In keeping with Terpsichore's character, the piece is very fun and energetic with lots of moving parts. In explaining the piece, Thomas noted how it could be choreographed for dance, and several movements are labeled as dances. Dance-like tempos and rhythms pervade the work.

It also showcases Thomas’ penchant for finding interesting musical motifs and rhythmic phrases that she manipulates in all kinds of ways. Sometimes the melodies are passed between the instruments, at other times the instruments come together to play in unison. Thomas also included lower pitched winds in the score.

While Thomas described it as a suite, it comes across more as a set of variations, with the rhythm shifting with the changes in the dance, from “Dance #1: Scatter” to “Dance #2: Tiptoe Caper” to “Dance #3: Pointillistic Groove Flutter pirouettes,” etc. At the center things slow down for a dream sequence with a marvelous aural tapestry, before a sunrise transition speeds back up to “Dance #6: Gambol.” Terpsichore’s Box of Dreams was a fun way to end an enjoyable evening.

While Friday's performance offered some variety, Grossman Ensemble concerts could use a little more. Perhaps they could commission a concerto for one of their players as soloist, or a concertante showcasing a subset of the players backed up by the others. Maybe bring in a choir or a vocal quartet, or commission a long, multi-movement work preceded by an intermission. Programs would benefit from something that makes each new work a little more distinctive.

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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.