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Contempo doubles down on new music, plays matchmaker for separate audiences

Submitted by on Nov 13, 2011 – 9:21 am

Preview: U.S. and Chicago premieres abound in the season opener of Contempo, at the Harris Theater Tuesday. The University of Chicago new music concert is a double bill featuring a second set with Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara and her trio.

By Nancy Malitz

When Contempo opens its 47th season Tuesday, in Harris Theater at Millennium Park, it will constitute one stop along Chicago’s amazing movable feast of contemporary fare. A veritable banquet of new sounds will be offered during the same week from other ensembles — New Music DePaul, Fulcrum Point, ICE, Cube and eighth blackbird.

If the composer Ralph Shapey were still alive, he’d  want to claim some credit for this abundance, and he’d be entitled. Ralph ShapeyIt was back in 1964 that the University of Chicago’s titan of craggy melody and radical dissonance formed the Contemporary Chamber Players and continued to run it for 30 years.

Shapey was encouraged throughout his long run by Paul Fromm, the Chicago wine importer, intellectual and philanthropist who strongly believed that traditional audiences were losing their ability to connect with the newest sounds.

The two accomplished amazing things on that UC campus.

Fromm backed an annual commissioning project that provided for dozens of world premieres. Shapey paired them with other cutting-edge compositions to create programs of mind-blowing originality.

By the time Shapey retired  from CCP in 1994, Chicago’s new music habit had burrowed deep into city culture. The CCP series (now Contempo) is still highly respected, and it’s still evolving.

Contempo’s present artistic director is UC professor Shulamit Ran, currently finishing up a four-month residence in Rome as the Paul Fromm Composer in Residence at the American Academy.

Although she says Contempo is “very much the same great organization, true to the original spirit of CCP of bringing the best, most hearing-worthy music of our time,” she acknowledges a metamorphosis well underway:

  •  Contempo’s annual  ‘double bill’ format aims to connect wholly separate audiences for jazz and new music: “We started doing one concert of double bills each season,” Ran explained. “At first we were worried that people would only show up for the music they knew, but it’s working. They stay for both.” Tuesday’s concert is this season’s entry in the format, featuring diminutive Japanese composer-pianist Hiromi Uehara — a product of Boston’s Berklee College of Music — with bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips. Their latest album includes a jazz take on Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata and it has turned up on their tours.
  • Contempo is competing aggressively at large: “When Ralph was doing CCP in the early days and certainly for some decades,” said Ran, “it was the single most serious new music ensemble in Chicago. Now, I think in large measure because of CCP, there is much, much more going on. Listeners have many choices, and it’s important that we be in places where people can easily come from all over.” CCP has performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Ganz Hall and the Chicago Cultural Center in addition to Harris and the UC campus.
  • Longstanding resident ensembles shape Contempo’s sensibility: The Pacifica Quartet and the sextet called eighth blackbird do some of their own commissioning and contribute a high level of virtuosity, forming a core to which local free-lancers are added as needed. “We didn’t know at first how long these associations would last,” admitted Ran. “But it has now been going on for over a decade.”
  • Two spring Contempo concerts offer student works under a program called Tomorrow’s Music Today. Ran says the music ranges wide. “We have composers writing for traditional music but not in traditional ways, and some who are working with electronics and non-European instruments. The students come from all over the world — Mexico, Argentina, Korea, China, Turkey, Israel, Canada, Poland — I’m sure I’m forgetting a few.”

Contempo’s evolution will continue when Logan Center for the Arts, UC’s new state-of-the-art facility, is finished in spring 2012. The structure, which rises as a tall spire on the Midway Plaisance, is envisioned as a mixing bowl of fused spaces for performance and it will allow the mingling of resources in visual arts, theater, multimedia, film and electronica.

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Photo captions:  From top:  Hiromi Uehara, Ralph Shapey, Shulamit Ran, eighth blackbird. 

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