By Wynne Delacoma
CHICAGO – It was one of those magically soft, humid late summer nights in Chicago.
Outside the Empty Bottle, an amiably grungy night spot in the hip Ukrainian Village neighborhood, young people milled about, chatting and smoking. Inside a band was tearing up the joint, playing to an SRO crowd that packed the stage area next to the bar. Shamelessly plugging their upcoming concerts and raffling off band T-shirts, they wrapped up their set in a burst of blistering speed that sent the crowd into ecstatic whoops.
An encore? Absolutely. What should it be? “Bartók Four!” somebody yelled. Everybody, including the musicians, laughed.
Welcome to the newest edition of Chicago’s classical music scene. The band playing the Empty Bottle that night in August 2012 wasn’t serving up head-banging rock or sweet home Chicago blues. It was the Spektral Quartet, ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago, giving a preview of their 2012-13 season. The repertoire stretched from string quartets by Haydn and Beethoven to short works by Chicago composers Daniel Dehaan, Jenna Lyle, Hans Thomalla, and Chris Fisher-Lockhead.
As Spektral’s violist Doyle Armbrust told the Chicago Reader‘s Peter Margasak that fall, “We want the experience to feel like introducing a friend to a new favorite band, turning up the volume on the stereo and shouting, ‘This is my jam!'”
Spektral Quartet is riding a trend in the Windy City. Other relatively young, talented groups like Ensemble dal niente, Fifth House Ensemble, Third Coast Percussion, Chicago Q, and Access Contemporary Music are taking their music to bars, art galleries, small theaters and repurposed second-floor spaces. They’re inspired by the example set 40 years ago when young, gifted, penniless actors began coming to Chicago and setting up small theater companies in store fronts and former automobile showrooms. Today, with more than 200 live theaters of all shapes and sizes scattered around the city and suburbs, Chicago is one of the most vibrant theater cities in the nation.
Chicago’s theater scene inspired the founders of the International Contemporary Ensemble. Flutist Claire Chase, a co-founder of ICE, recalls their thinking in the mid-1990s. If small theater groups could thrive in Chicago, why couldn’t a similarly committed group of young musicians?
It’s taken a while for the scene to come together, but that’s finally beginning to happen. Spektral members curate a regular Un) familiar Music series at the Empty Bottle throughout the year. Contemporary ensembles turn up regularly at the Green Mill, an iconic night spot on Chicago’s North Side whose history reaches back to the days of speakeasies and rum-running gangsters.
Mason Bates, a composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recently presented a handful of CSO musicians at Metro. The long-established club is two blocks from Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, in one of the city’s hottest nightlife neighborhoods. Bates served as DJ between the musicians’ performances of chamber pieces by Bartók and Stravinsky. Billed as Mercury Soul @ Metro, the CSO’s web site described the night as “No seats, no program book and plenty to drink: this is a 21st century ‘salon’ at its best.”
It isn’t only young musicians or contemporary music specialists who are seeking out alternative venues. When Michael Henoch, long-time assistant principal oboe at the CSO, decided to found a chamber group several years ago, he booked his concert series at S.P.A.C.E. in north suburban Evanston. The venue’s offerings mainly run from cabaret and jazz to folk rock. But in addition to its good acoustics, Henoch liked the sleek setting and relaxed atmosphere where listeners can sit at tables and sip a drink as they listen to Bach and Schubert. His Dempster Street Pro Musica routinely sells out the 300-seat room.
Haymarket Opera Company, a two-year-old troupe specializing in Baroque opera, makes its home at the Mayne Stage, a former vaudeville and movie house on Chicago’s Far North Side. Recently gutted and renovated, the small theater’s dark, gleaming wood, dim lights and cabaret tables bring to mind a posh, clubby hotel bar.
“One of our board members mentioned Mayne Stage to me,” said cellist Craig Trompeter, who founded Haymarket with singer Ellen Hargis. “When I walked in, I knew that if we could get it, that would be the place.
“The size is perfect. It seats 230 for us. The acoustic is great. And the minute you walk in the door, it’s sort of an enchanting place.”
Mayne Stage has its limitations. There’s no fly space for scenery and no orchestra pit. Haymarket’s small orchestra performs standing in a raised aisle running along the theater’s right side wall.
But Trompeter isn’t complaining.
“It’s probably about the size of the theater these very early pieces were actually performed in,” he said. “And it’s great to have the audience right on top of the stage. We can play incredibly quietly, the singers can sing incredibly quietly. The focus becomes more on expression rather than making lots of sound.”
The four operas in Haymarket’s first two seasons, which included superb productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, sold out. In 2013-14, the company will add a third performance of each opera. “We don’t want to leave the venue,” said Trompeter.
The newest alternative space on Chicago’s classical music scene is Constellation, a bar and music room that opened this spring on the city’s Northwest Side. It’s the former Viaduct Theater, a comfortable, roomy venue that was home to several hip Chicago theater groups. Peter Margasak, music critic for the Chicago Reader, is organizing a weekly new and experimental music series titled Frequency for the theater. According to Margasak, drummer Mike Reed, a promoter involved with Chicago’s Pitchfork and Umbrella music festivals, is the prime mover behind Constellation.
“Having [Frequency] every Sunday is key,” said Margasak. “I want people to think, ‘Hey, it’s Sunday, there’s probably something interesting over at Constellation.’ We’re hoping people will hang out.”
He is sure that Constellation’s full, professional-grade sound system will attract ensembles.
“So many groups have cropped up, and they’re very driven,” Margasak said. “Hopefully, this will take some of the pressure off them of having to do everything. It’s been really bizarre and amusing, some of the e-mails I get. People ask, ‘Can we do this? Do you have microphones?’ Yes, we have all those things.”
Chicago composer Seth Boustead founded Access Contemporary Music to showcase new ensembles and new composers. A fan of Chicago architectural history, he has booked performances in repurposed power plants and the derelict former Sears & Roebuck headquarters on Chicago’s Near West Side. Concerts during Access Contemporary Music’s 2013-14 season will be given in the large atrium of Architectural Artifacts on Chicago’s North Side. Housed in two circa 1900 manufacturing plants, the store sells large and small pieces of salvaged architecture from around the world.
Boustead believes that classical music can find a home in both grand concert halls and funky bars. (At right, “Carmen,” Access Contemporary Music style.)
“I call the symphony (Orchestra Hall) the grand temple of the realm,” said Boustead. “But that doesn’t mean that you’re going to go there every day. The symphony should be exactly what it is, more or less, a perfect acoustic environment. But what the young groups are doing is challenging the notion that classical music is only for the well-heeled.”
So don’t be surprised if you walk into a bar in Chicago and hear some Bartók instead of Bo Diddley covers. Bluesmen aren’t the only Chicago musicians who want to get their mojo working.
Wynne Delacoma is a free lance arts writer and lecturer and former classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.