Review: Grossman Ensemble Ends the Season Memorably

The Grossman Ensemble ended their 2023/2024 season in a memorable way at Logan Center for Performing Arts in Hyde Park on Friday night. Under the direction of conductor Jeffery Meyer, the resident ensemble of the Center for Contemporary Composition at the University of Chicago gave the world premieres of four works that they had commissioned.

Making up the 13-person Grossman Ensemble is a string quartet, five brass and winds, a piano, a harp, and two percussionists. They always offer top notch musicianship, although there were a few moments when phrasing was not perfectly precise on Friday. Using his hands, Jeffery Meyer has a conducting style that remained close to his body. He adapted well to the various sounds called for in each piece.

Grossman Ensemble and Conductor Jeffery Meyer. Photo by Anthony Nguyen.

Since 2018, the Grossman Ensemble has premiered many new works. In a collaborative process, composers work with the ensemble and conductor, who changes from performance to performance. The composers are usually present at the performances, and they provide interesting explanations of their pieces and the composition process.

Gabriel Novak described the process for creating Calapitter, which opened the concert. He had the ensemble perform a snippet of music that was originally in the piece but was later dropped. He also had a percussionist demonstrate an unusual performance technique written into the score. It was quite an unusual opportunity to hear actual examples of how a new piece of music evolves.  

Novak’s written notes described how transposing some letters within a single word created similar but still different familiarities. Calapitter. or caterpillar, explored this concept. It starts from outer space with clarinet, percussion and harp creating a drone that other instruments join. Eventually a locomotive-like tempo emerges. Later in the piece the flute, clarinet, and piano interact in ways like flies and bees buzzing over everything else.

Grossman Ensemble. Photo by Anthony Nguyen.

A big challenge in creating 12-minute works for the same 13 musicians is making each piece distinctive. Over the years some of the music produced in this way has not always been memorable. This was not the case on Friday night, when the four compositions were completely different from one another. Nothing provided greater contrast than the second and third pieces on the program. While both had slow tempos, they provided sounds in very different ways.  

Felipe Mara’s Mosaic Maze offered quick, rhythmic sound bites that shifted between the groupings of instruments, starting with percussion and piano, and quickly expanding to a scratchy sounding string quartet. The woodwinds come in passing quick notes from one to another, with the oboe eventually setting the sound. Here is where precision is vitally important, but it wasn’t always there. While very rhythmic throughout, Mosaic Maze ends in a choral-like sequence with the oboe taking the lead once again.

This was very much contrasted with David Bird’s Chroma, which he described as “sonic metallurgy.” Starting on the horn, and gradually expanding to other instruments, much of the piece had long, slowly changing notes that created fascinating aural hues with a distinctly metallic edge. Especially interesting was how Bird worked the percussion, piano, and harp into the wall of sound. Tight tonality came across with moments of pause, which allowed the atonal harmonics to waft into the air. 

As enjoyable as those pieces were, Vivian Fung’s Ominous ended the concert in an eerie way. In this piece Fung used tremolos throughout to create a very dramatic yet pensive feel. Within this framework, she also created unexpected soundscapes that are unnerving, rather than relaxing. A great climax emerged that included a solo on the drum kit. The contrast between it and the program’s other works produced a very satisfying experience overall.

After a summer break, members of the Grossman Ensemble will be returning to the Logan Canter to perform Tapas, a series of chamber works featuring different configurations and subsets of the 13 players. Saturday, October 5, at 7:30pm. For more information, click here.

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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.