Two ensembles present compelling collaboration

By Manasi Vydyanath

In many ways, the Contempo embody the quintessence of classical music-making in our times —as well as provide a tantalizing glimpse of what they might become. Founded by Ralph Shapey at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1964, the Contemporary Chamber Players were envisaged as a forum for the performance of modern classical music. The result was 40 years of visionary programming, scintillating performances, and groundbreaking premieres.

The Contempo are difficult to pin down—they resist facile classification, just as their performances resist categorization. The ensemble itself is essentially composed of a series of collaborations between various artists and ensembles. The two artists-in-residence at the moment are the Pacifica Quartet and the eighth blackbird, who joined in 1998 and 2000, respectively. The Contempo also works with soloists and conductors on a per-concert basis, and this unique organizational structure allows them tremendous flexibility over their programming. As artistic director Shulamit Ran put it, they can present pieces that call for forces ranging from a soloist to a small orchestra. Their concert at Mandel Hall earlier this year was a case in point: the repertoire included Elzbieta Sikora’s Tramway 28 scored for solo saxophone against tape, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1931 string quartet, and György Ligeti’s Melodien, written for a camerata.

The same aesthetic allows them to present “double-bills,” such as the concert taking place tonight at the Chicago Historical Society. The concert features works from the contemporary classical idiom: George Crumb’s Black Angels for amplified string quartet, Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings for soprano and chamber ensemble, and Chen Yi’s Qi for flute, cello, piano and percussion—paired with a jazz performance by the renowned and inimitable Brad Mehldau.

Edward Rothstein in the New York Times once characterized the 21st century as being artistically dominated by malleability and flexibility. In that particular article, the statement was made with a leitmotif of bleakness; I restate it here with spirited conviction. Expressive flexibility has more to do with being versatile than being philosophically inconsistent, and malleability can be defined as the ability to explore the same concept in n different ways. The Contempo appear to have perfected this form of consistent plasticity, so to speak, morphing to suit the palette of various composers while still retaining an overarching sense of artistic vision.

And just what constitutes that artistic vision? In order to answer that, one must know something of the ensemble’s history. Since its inception, it has performed more than 80 world premieres, and even more Chicago premieres. Ralph Shapey remained its artistic director for almost 30 years, working with composers like George Crumb, Roger Sessions, John Harbinson, George Perle, Shulamit Ran, and John Eaton. Shapey retired in 1993, while still remaining in active collaboration with the group as music director laureate until his death in 2002. In 1998, the ensemble underwent an extensive restructuring, and became much more closely involved with the University of Chicago’s music department. Four years saw a succession of distinguished resident directors, including Barbara Schubert, Cliff Colnot and Carmen Helena Tellez. Shulamit Ran took over as artistic director in 2004, and now, in their 40th year, the Contemporary Chamber Players are embarking upon a new path, with “a new look, new performance venues and the new alias of Contempo.”

An important part of the ensemble’s artistic ethos involves close collaboration with the student composers at the University. Professor Ran phrased it as being “about giving them a chance to see their works coming to life in an actual performance setting; a chance to see their works realized.” She holds that this dialectic vivification is an integral part of the creative process for an emerging composer; something that makes him look at his work from the eyes of the performers and gives him multiple perspectives from which to consider its efficacy. Also, seeing a work evolve from inception to the concert hall makes the entire process of composition seem that much more concrete. The students of today may turn out to be voices that shape the future of classical music. Therefore, by committing itself to work with composers of as yet incipient fame, the Contempo is making an incalculable investment in the destiny of the art form.

Another facet of their objectives lies in just performing new music—every concert showcases pieces composed in the last few decades. Given the vast, almost riotous profusion of such music, how are these combinations chosen? The artistic director emphasizes that the program is not chosen to match a pre-determined theme. “Sometimes the themes are overt, and sometimes they are much more subtle, but they always grow out of the performance, not the other way around. I get exposed to a lot of new music, from my various residencies, from the classes I teach, from the people I work with. I try to be as comprehensive as I can. It’s a very multi-lateral process,” says Professor Ran. “The performers come to me all the time with new ideas about what we ought to play. We talk about it, and eventually figure something out.”

She characterizes the extant state of classical music as “a curious situation… on one hand you have these amazingly creative composers who write wonderful new music, and you have performers, students and ensembles just spontaneously coming together to perform this music. There is a lot of creativity going on. But on the other hand, it is undeniable that classical music is in a state of crisis; CD sales are falling, recording companies are relegating their classical music collections to ever-higher floors—right now, it’s somewhere up in the attic—orchestras are merging and folding… it’s a disconnect. The creativity is apparently not filtering through to the audiences.” This bifurcation of creativity and financial success is essentially a state of extremely dynamic, static equilibrium. The whole system is in unprecedented flux, and is yet not making any progress towards further economic well-being.

Why is this occurring? One of the reasons could be the a priori assumption that audiences will not like modern music. If the concert programming offices and performers are under such an impression, they will naturally choose to retreat into the safety of the canonical. And since the pool of canonical works is limited by definition, they restrict both their product and its market. Closely linked to this is the fact that most modern works have yet to rise into the favored list of “staple repertoire.” And closely linked to that is the fact that modern works are seldom given enough hearings by groups influential enough to connect to a large audience base.

That is precisely where ensembles like the Contempo step in: 40 years of brilliant performances and innovative programming have made it a prominent force of musical exposition. By playing modern music in thought-provoking combinations, bringing out the implicit as well as the explicit beauty of some of these works, the ensemble functions as a gifted advocate presenting a superbly argued case for each piece in a given concert. Of course, the final judgment rests in the hands of history, and in many cases, as Mark Grant put it, the jury is still out. But the Contempo make sure that each work is given a fair trial. Concerts like the one coming up on Tuesday are part of the strategy to connect with as extensive an audience as possible. Exposure leads to interest, interest leads to further exploration, and exploration leads to familiarity, judgment and the first steps toward possible immortality.

In certain ways, this points to an even deeper question, one I had occasion to put to Professor Ran last week: Why should anyone really care about modern classical music? I can do no better than to quote her response: “Had Beethoven and Bach been alive today, they would have written in the language of our times. Wouldn’t you like to know what Beethoven and Bach are thinking? Daniel Barenboim once said to me that when he played Berio, it deepened his understanding of Berlioz. Understanding the past helps invigorate the present.”

Indeed. The fact that the Contempo is composed of both a string quartet and an ensemble specializing in the cutting-edge avant-garde adds to this philosophy. The Pacifica can play Ruth Seeger’s 1931 quartet and then turn around and play Haydn; the eighth blackbird’s primary emphasis is upon the here and now, presenting classical music as it unfolds in real time. This puts the Contempo in the unique position of having an apprehension of the past and a foothold in the future, making it one of the most compelling voices of our times.