I’m a classical music dabbler. I don’t profess to have the ability to be conversant about Mahler’s “Symphony No.5” or Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” in the same way I am about August: Osage County or Macbeth or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but I like my classical music fix here and there, either in the hallowed halls of Symphony Center or under the bucolic greenery of Millennium Park or Ravinia during the summer. I mean, come on, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been ranked as one of the top five orchestras in the world, and it is acclaimed everywhere it goes during its extensive world tours. But I do think classical music performances among my demographic and younger continue to have that air (some would call stigma) of inaccessibility, more so than the rest of the performing arts – unlike theater or film, there aren’t clear-cut narratives and dialogue to follow; unlike pop or rock music concerts, there isn’t as much of a visceral impact. But Chicago is packed with young, talented, boundary-pushing classical musicians and ensembles, and if you keep yourself in the loop, great opportunities to hear them in places other than Symphony Center, Ravinia, Millennium Park, or the myriad of concert halls that dot the city. A couple of weekends ago, I managed to have a double dose of classical music performance in between the non-stop theatergoing I do- one night I was at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow event called Mercury Soul at, of all places, The Metro, in the last-remaining tiny patch of grunge in the outer edges of frat-jock central Wrigleyville. The next night I attended the End-of-Season concert (and party) of the fantastic, fast-emerging Spektral Quartet in a clandestine performance arts space on the outer edges of nowheresville Chicago (actually an industrial stretch of Elston that is literally a dump – there was a garbage truck parking lot on it). Both were essential experiences for any Chicago cultural adventurer, and both proved that classical music was indeed sexy and relevant. On both evenings, I kinda had to pinch myself on how lucky I was to live in this vibrant arts city.
When I first started my blog I wrote about the CSO’s MusicNow a couple of times, and I continue to admire its ability to draw a younger demographic into its Harris Theater performances, an intriguing blend of a concert and a really smart house party (there’s a pizza-and-beer event right after the performance which is pretty fun). I haven’t been back though since the hot young composer Mason Bates, whose superpowers turn him into San Francisco electronica musician DJ Masonic as well, became one of the composers-in-residence (the other one is Anne Clyne), responsible for MusicNow programming. Bates, together with conductor Benjamin Schwartz and designer Anne Patterson, have put on unique classical music-meets-electronica performance nights in non-traditional spaces called Mercury Soul (also the name of their artistic collaboration) in Berlin, Miami, San Francisco, and last year Chicago (also under the aegis of MusicNow, and in the Redmoon Theatre space in West Town). So this was the second Mercury Soul night in Chicago and what a night it was at The Metro! CSO musicians performed works by Xenakis (a jaw-dropping, virtuoso percussion performance led by Principal Percussion Cythia Yeh), Esa-Pekka Salonen (a piece inspired by spermatozoa of all things but enthusiastically performed), Marcus Lindberg, and Bates and Clyne. In between the classical music sets (dramatically lit and sometimes accompanied by video background), the audience members milled around, drank a ton of beer, tweeted and texted, and listened and danced to electronica sets from various DJs, including Bates. If not for the rapt attention that the audiences gave to the performances, you’d think you were at just another concert at The Metro. It was terrific, because there was none of the audience stuffiness, the polite reserve, the sometimes smug intellectualism that you would find in typical classical music performances. Even more than the regular MusicNow performances (still held symphony hall concert-style), I felt that at Mercury Soul, classical music became both relevant and urgently familiar. And seeing Maestro Riccardo Muti, there to support his musicians in the midst of all The Metro grit, was a memory burned in my head forever!
The following night I was at Spektral Quartet’s End-of-Season concert and party at High-Concept Laboratories in a desolate part of the city straddling Wicker Park (where you had to find an unmarked door, ring the doorbell, and be on a guest list, which I loved!). I wanted to come to their multi-media performance in late May called The Theater of War but I was traveling for work at that time. Thanks to social media (aka their Facebook page), I learned that they were doing one final end-of-season performance, so I made sure I got to see them. And I was so glad I did! Spektral Quartet, comprised of Aurelien Pederzoli and J. Austin Wulliman on violin, Doyle Armbust on viola, and Russell Rolen on cello, put on a concert that was thoughtful yet bold, filled with beautiful music-making. The first piece was a “mash-up” between Ravel’s “Quartet” and Marcos Balter’s “Chambers”, which managed to be both ethereal (especially with the Chicago dusk settling behind the venue’s picture windows) and fiercely contemporary, through the seamless blending of parts of both compositions. The second piece was Beethoven’s Opus 59, which, in Spektral Quartet’s hands, felt both epic and intimate, faithfully literate yet heartfelt and sexy (and yes, imho, there’s nothing sexier than guys with string instruments!). It was a great event: a diverse audience sipping Green Line Pale Ale, clapping between movements (yeah, so sue us!), and mingling with the performers and with each other in between sets to express their love of music. It was hip, without being hipster; accessible without pandering to the least common denominator; respectful of the classical medium without being purist. In short, that night, the Spektral Quartet, its audience, and its performance was what I thought classical music should evolve to in order to bring in the tenuous attention and loyalty of 21st century audiences. Their next concert in the fall will be at, of all places, the Empty Bottle, so I’ll be sure to be there with folks unfamiliar with classical music that will hopefully fall in love with it.