Augusta Read Thomas is championing an expansive new composition center at the University of Chicago. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
via the Chicago Tribune:
Augusta Read Thomas' bold new venture at the University of Chicago
By Howard Reich
When composer and University of Chicago professor Augusta Read Thomas launched the well-titled Ear Taxi Festival here, in 2016, she appeared to have reached a personal high point.
For during six intensely packed days and nights, 500 Chicago-area musicians performed music by 87 living composers, including 54 world premieres, and more.
How could anyone soon top that galvanizing experience?
But Thomas and her colleagues at the U. of C. appear to have done just that with the forthcoming inaugural season of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition. Much more than just a grandiloquent name, the institution will present:
- The Grossman Ensemble, a newly created band of 13 new-music specialists performing three concerts at the university’s Logan Center for the Arts (Dec. 7; March 15; June 7). Repertoire will include 12 world premieres, including seven commissioned works. Each concert will be preceded by eight rehearsals, some open to the public.
- An experimental music series at the Logan Center Performance Penthouse featuring MacArthur Fellow Tyshawn Sorey leading his trio (Nov. 8) and CHIMEfest 2019: Live Electronics Symposium (May 2 and 3).
- Spektral +1, Plus One, in which Chicago’s innovative Spektral Quartet will collaborate with guest instrumentalists to play world premieres of works by graduate student composers at Constellation (Jan. 13).
- A Civic Orchestra of Chicago concert at Symphony Center featuring world premieres by U. of C. graduate students (Feb. 5).
- Visiting ensembles, with Yarn/Wire playing at the Logan Center Performance Hall (Oct. 13) and the ~Nois saxophonist quartet performing new works at the Hairpin Arts Center gallery (April 12).
It’s an enormous endeavor that has been long in the making.
“When I first came to the University of Chicago eight years ago, I had started to see the great synergies and the possibilities for building something like this,” says Thomas.
In essence, Thomas hoped to enrich the university’s long and distinguished history in contemporary music, composer Ralph Shapey having created the Contemporary Chamber Players there in 1964. That evolved into the Contempo presenting organization, which Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and U. of C. professor Shulamit Ran led until 2015, when U. of C. professor and composer Marta Ptaszynka took over.
The Grossman Ensemble, underwritten by the Sanford J. Grossman Charitable Trust, was designed to extend the legacy of the Contemporary Chamber Players.
“The idea is to have eight rehearsals, which is already an enormous luxury for a chamber orchestra, and have them spread out over three months,” explains Thomas. “It’s great for the investigation of sound, sculpting, tweaking, trying to just think it through for a second.
“That’s a little different than Shapey’s Contemporary Chamber Players — the idea that we have this process,” adds Thomas. “I was working with my colleagues about whom we could commission, and everyone (approached) said yes, because no one ever gets this chance.”
The Civic Orchestra concert also sounds promising, in that these talented young musicians will learn new scores written by university graduate students.
“I approached them at least two years ago: Was there any way we could put a project together?” says Thomas.
“I could have hired a freelance orchestra and put together a reading,” but multiple rehearsals by a committed ensemble clearly could yield a deeper, richer experience for everyone.
“For Civic musicians, they’re doing music of their time — nine world premieres,” says Thomas. “Just getting to engage with their peers and new sounds and learning all kinds of different (musical) languages and syntaxes.”
Characteristically, Thomas sees this opening season not simply as the culmination of years of planning but as just the beginning of something bigger.
She envisions the Grossman Ensemble, for instance, reaching well outside campus.
“I would love for them to tour,” says Thomas. “There’s no reason they couldn’t take one of these concerts to Milwaukee or Lincoln Center (in New York) or the Harris or the South Bank Centre (London). If I were a presenter, I’d say: ‘Let’s have the Grossman Ensemble do five of their premieres.’
“They could be ambassadors for the university and the city and the composers and themselves.”
Though the university declines to specify the budget for this ambitious first season, Thomas is not modest about her goals for its financial future.
“I would like to raise $20 million so we can endow this and have it really just keep running,” she says.
“Look around the country at Google and Facebook and Apple and Exxon Mobile,” says Thomas.
“$500 million sounds enormous to me — I don’t even know how many zeroes that is. But it’s thrown around every day.
“So $20 million, when you put it in context — you could endow this fabulous center that would go on forever in your name — it seems reasonable.”
More power to her.
Read the full story at the Chicago Tribune.