November 9, 2011

New works premiere at annual highlight of Chicago’s classical music calendar.

One wouldn’t normally hear a hauntingly beautiful classical string quartet and an electrifying, piano-powered jazz performance at the same concert.

But you can count on Contempo, the University of Chicago’s new music collective, to defy such conventions – and increase its following in the process.

Contempo kicks off its 2011-12 concert season on Nov. 15 with its latest Double Bill event at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. In keeping with past Double Bills, the event features new works and unexpected, compelling pairings.

Nov. 15 kick-off event

The first portion will focus on the kind of contemporary, classical music Contempo has been known to perform throughout its 47-year existence. Performers include Grammy-award winning ensembles-in-residence Pacifica Quartet and eighth blackbird, and Amy Briggs, the University’s Director of Chamber music and Artistic Advisor and Resident Artist to its New Music Ensemble.

The evening’s second half is decidedly different, featuring the eclectic jazz stylings of Hiromi: The Trio Project, led by up-and-coming Japanese composer and pianist Hiromi Uehara.

“We feel we’re in on the ground floor [with Hiromi],” says Martha Feldman, chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Music. “She’s a very special young woman … another huge frontier for piano playing and for jazz.”

While Hiromi is generally categorized as a jazz musician, the adventurous artist embraces both rock and classical elements in her work. Hiromi prefers not to confine herself to a single genre, making her an appropriate guest performer for the Double Bill’s outside-the-box approach. “It’s really a great opportunity for me to meet new listeners and for listeners to meet new music,” says Hiromi.

History of Contempo's Double Bill

The Double Bill began eight years ago when the Contemporary Chamber Players was renamed Contempo under the artistic direction of composer Shulamit Ran, the University’s Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor of Music. As CCP the group was already well-known not just for performing contemporary classical compositions, including premieres by established artists, but also new works by University of Chicago graduate composition students. It is an aim that continues to be central to Contempo’s mission. “As composers, we don’t just want to write music on paper and not hear anything,” says Yao Chen, a University of Chicago composition PhD student whose work Contempo has performed in the past.

But in 2004, when the Contemporary Chamber Players underwent a name change, it also began a new campaign to reach a broader audience.

Key to that transition and expansion was juxtaposing different styles of music in a new conception of what classical “art” music could be. The first Double Bill featured widely acclaimed jazz pianist Brad Mehldau in a solo set; it was such a success, attracting what Feldman cites as Contempo’s largest audiences in years, all of them attending both halves, that the Double Bill became an annual event.

"It is rare to see situations where the genres are mixed together in the same concert,” Ran says. “But by putting the two together side by side, I think you listen to each one of them differently, and that’s special and exciting.”

Beyond diverse talent, off-campus concert locations have also attracted larger audiences. Contempo double bills and other concerts have been hosted at such downtown venues as Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Cultural Center, and the Harris Theater. “Far more people are aware of the type of high level artistry we have by bringing [Contempo] to the city at large,” Ran says.

Thanks in part to Contempo’s efforts, Chicago has evolved from having a “kind of non-existent contemporary music presence” ten years ago to “a scene that has really exploded with 16 or 20 active groups that do five to 10 shows a year in diverse venues,” says flutist Tim Munro whose ensemble, eighth blackbird, will perform two pieces including the Chicago premiere of a piece by Nico Muhly. “The University of Chicago can take a lot of credit for that.”

Student tickets are $5. Thirty-five free tickets are also available starting at 10 a.m. two weeks prior to the date of the show (only one ticket per UCID), first come first served through the Sponsor-a-Student program and the UChicago Arts Pass Program.

By Piet Levy

Contempo will feature the eclectic jazz stylings of Hiromi: The Trio Project, led by up-and-coming Japanese composer and pianist Hiromi Uehara on November 15

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