Grossman Ensemble project sparks surge of creative energy

Grossman Ensemble

By Nancy Malitz for Classical Voice North America

Marking a new era in new music for this city of proud musical institutions, December 2018 brought the formal debut of the Grossman Ensemble as a contemporary sinfonietta comprising thirteen nationally known, entrepreneurially minded, award-winning instrumentalists who have made a commitment to collaborate with a dozen or more composers each season. To best serve the composers in the development, performance, and recording of numerous world premieres, the instrumentalists have also agreed – almost unbelievably in this freelance world – to attend every rehearsal throughout a prolonged process that allows (get this) no subs.

The project is made possible by a gift from the Sanford J. Grossman Charitable Trust, and it is the beating heart of the University of Chicago’s recently established Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition (CCCC), founded and directed by Augusta Read Thomas. The University of Chicago professor is unique among the world’s most prominent living composers for the consistent attention she devotes to projects on the broad behalf of other composers and curious listeners. The envisioning is not only meticulous in detail (“No subs!”), but also breathtakingly big in scope.

Few in Chicago’s music scene will forget Thomas’ 2016 brainchild, the Ear Taxi Festival, which promised listeners a “joy ride for the ears” in a citywide, free-to-roam multiplex of concerts featuring 300 musicians playing the music of 88 composers, with 54 world premieres in a flat-out jubilee of fearless celebration. The CCCC project is even more dizzying than Ear Taxi conceptually, in that the sinfonietta centerpiece is funded for fifteen years from start-up.

“The Grossman Ensemble really goes back to Ralph Shapey’s vision for the Contemporary Chamber Players,” said Thomas in an interview during the rehearsal process. “Ralph founded that group in 1964 and ran it for decades on campus in the belief that rather than just paying an ensemble to fly in on tour, it was better to build our own ensemble and play our own repertoire, written for it by the greatest composers of our time. When I took this whole concept to the local musicians, they were thrilled by the idea, saying ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’ It has been inspiring to see just how good they really are.”

Thomas said the Grossman Ensemble will focus on what today’s composers need in order to achieve the best possible experience in bringing an ambitious work to fruition. Her idea is timely: The nation’s symphony orchestras and opera companies, so luxurious and defining of classical music in the mid-twentieth century, do limited commissioning of their own. And the traditional symphonic or operatic set-up may not always be the most flexible fit for the sound worlds that some new composers choose. Compared to traditional large ensembles, the newly configured Grossman Ensemble seems rather sporty, its high-powered modern sound driven by an engine that includes a baritone sax and two percussionists, plus harp, string quartet, piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, and horn – and gobs of electro-acoustic wherewithal.

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