The sparkling debut of the Grossman Ensemble

The newly-formed Grossman Ensemble, the in-house ensemble of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition. (Photo courtesy of Grittani Creative)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

One of the critical components of the new Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition at the University of Chicago is the in-house ensemble which performs the music that the CCCC commissions. The ensemble is made up of 13 professionals who are specialists in contemporary music.

The Sanford J. Grossman Charitable Trust provided the funds to create the small chamber orchestra, which has been named the Grossman Ensemble. The 13 musicians play the following instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, horn, harp, piano, percussion (2), violin (2), viola, and cello. All the works commissioned by the CCCC for the Grossman Ensemble will be for this specific musical configuration. The ensemble made its debut the first Friday of this month at the Logan Center Performance Hall to, what for new music, was a large and enthusiastic crowd.

There were four works on the concert program, each approximately 15 minutes long, and all were world premieres of music written expressly for the Grossman Ensemble. Each composer was present and spoke briefly about his or her composition before it was performed.

Shulamit Ran (b. 1940), a highly decorated composer (she won the Pulitzer Prize for her symphony) and a Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago, was selected to compose the very first piece for the very first concert of the Grossman Ensemble. She described it as a challenge to write for the specific grouping of the ensemble but she called the challenge “exciting and interesting.” She said she believed the occasion was “not the time to write a downer kind of piece” and chose instead to write something celebratory and uplifting.

Ran’s “Grand Rounds” opened with spare sound, a two-note motif moving between piano and vibraphone. As the music developed and other instruments joined in, a mysterious quality was created that evolved into something hopeful. An agitated, rapid section added depth, and there were a few gently humorous touches.

She made good use of the entire ensemble, giving the winds energetic lines, the first violin a lyrical passage, and inserting pert parts for percussion, including a splendid, brief drum solo. It closed with the quiet yet uplifting sound of the chimes.

Sam Pluta (b. 1979) is a member of the CCCC advisory board and another member of the UC faculty. He introduced his work “Actuate/Resonate” as a piece which explores “attack, decay, and release.” Employing analog electronics, one of the most fascinating elements of his piece was the blending of electronic and acoustical sound. It was often difficult or even impossible to tell precisely where one ended and the other began. And surely that was part of his compositional goal: to meld them in artistic fashion. The beginning featured blasts of sound followed by silence, with strong percussion punctuation.

He describes the main portion of the piece as a “percussive attack to examine its resonances, timbrel changes, gradual unfolding of colors and harmonies.” From very quiet to quite raucous, the music meandered along intriguing paths.

Tonia Ko (b. 1988) is a postdoctoral researcher at the CCCC. She noted that her piece, “Simple Fuel,” was “inspired by movement: what makes things move and what makes them fast or slow.”

Her music invokes both the idea of the movement of an organic creature (she suggested a snail) as well as that of an object (“a freight train barreling down the tracks”). She joins these two ideas in an attractive way and her pre-performance remarks helped to inspire a programmic approach to listening to her music. Slowness gives way to speed.

Her score employs many advanced techniques for the players. The strings put down their bows at the beginning and used instead rhythm sticks — blue rods employed by children in elementary education classes — to ride over the strings. At one point the timpani was rubbed by a broken Super Ball attached to a coat hanger.

David Rakowski (b. 1958) told the audience that his piece, “Lee,” celebrates the life of composer Lee Hyla. He said his composition “put together things that sound like Lee and things that sound like me.” He was particularly inspired by Lee’s “We Speak Etruscan,” which features saxophone and clarinet. Rakowski used these two instruments ably, giving them jazzy, exciting music at the heart of the work.

The piece had energy and depth, and demonstrated inventive ways of getting from one place to the next. He used the entire ensemble well, letting each voice contribute in its own way. The music was particularly notable for the sheen and glow he obtained from the ensemble.

One of the important elements of the CCCC is the way works are rehearsed. The composer attends multiple rehearsals over many weeks and is thereby able to hear the exact sounds of the composition and make changes that might not otherwise be made until after a first performance. When I asked Rakowski what he thought of this procedure, he said it was excellent and that by consulting with the musicians before the premiere the result was “better than I wanted,” meaning that he liked the work when he had initially completed it, but liked it even better after tweaking it as a result of rehearsals.

Ben Bolter, a regular guest conductor with the International Contemporary Ensemble, was the night’s conductor, and he led the ensemble with a sure hand, using his Apple iPad Pro rather than paper scores.

The concert was followed by a reception that gave the audience a chance to talk to the composers, musicians, organizers, and other listeners. It was well attended by an audience who clearly quite pleased with the concert.

The next performances by the Grossman Ensemble will feature new works by Chen Yi, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Rodrigo Bussad, and Jack Hughes. The public is invited to an all-day rehearsal on Sat., Feb. 16 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The performance of the works rehearsed that day will be on Fri., Mar. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the Logan Center Performance Hall.

Other upcoming CCCC events: “Spektral+1” (the strings of the Grossman Ensemble are the members of the Spektral Quartet), a performance of graduate composers performed by the Spektral Quartet with some guest performers. Sun., Jan. 13 at 8:30 p.m. at Constellation. On Tues., Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. nine University of Chicago composers will have new works premiered by the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. For more information, visit cccc.uchicago.edu.