October 2, 2013

For Amy Iwano, music lessons were part of a well-rounded education in the small town of Alliance, Ohio, where she grew up and learned how to play piano, harp and the French horn.

By the time she was in college on the West Coast, she had abandoned all but the harp, which she played in the Pomona College orchestra. Pursuing a spot in an established orchestra had its allure after graduation, but Iwano—who now directs University of Chicago Presents, UChicago’s professional music series—was more interested in promoting professional musicians than becoming one.

Bringing music to the ears of many listeners has become the cornerstone of her efforts in her work. The goal is to engage people from a variety of backgrounds with the vibrancy of music in all its various formats, quite often by exposing listeners to music that is completely new to them.

The path she took to her career was never obvious, but opportunities to work with musicians came along, including an internship with the L.A. Philharmonic. "At the time, there were three arts administration degree programs in the whole country," Iwano recalled. "Now there are probably more in Chicago alone." Iwano returned to the Midwest in 1993 to serve as executive director of the Chicago Chamber Musicians, a position she held for nearly two decades before joining University of Chicago Presents in 2012.

To kick off UChicago Presents’ 70th season, Iwano has looked back to 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten, with a five-week festival celebrating the centenary of the birth of this significant and beloved composer. Iwano said the festival will offer performances of Britten’s smaller-format music.  

“I hope it will help people gain an appreciation for Britten and perhaps discover a piece they hadn't heard before. My other hope is that the festival format will help set the context for Britten and his music.

“Many people love his music, especially musicians,” she added. “When artists have a passion for what they are doing it comes through so clearly in their performances, and that authenticity really connects with audiences.” Iwano said tenor Nicholas Phan, who will perform on Oct. 18 in Mandel Hall, was particularly inspirational for her in building this concept into the festival. “He has released two gorgeous, critically acclaimed CDs of Britten's music,” she added.

Celebrating Britten, a composer whose own concern was to connect with audiences through his music, is an apt way to go about audience development. It also offers Iwano an opportunity to reinforce the unique role UChicago Presents can play in the greater cultural landscape of the city by drawing on the scholarly resources of the University.

The Britten festival will feature the ideas of faculty members presented through lectures and four scholarly essays published in the program book, which offer new thinking on Britten's life. Other events will draw on the diverse resources of the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, the Nicholson Center for British Studies and Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

The University's professional music series typically offers about 25 public concerts and other events annually. This year will feature artists and ensembles from nine different countries, including performances by the Jupiter Quartet, Third Coast Percussion, Anonymous 4, the Shanghai Quartet, the Spektral Quartet and The Bad Plus.

New opportunities to hear the music of these artists will be offered in some unexpected places. Iwano also is taking artists out of their traditional concert venues and embedding them in the community. As she expands the artists-in-residence program, the groups will perform in new settings such as the University of Chicago Medical Center, student residence halls, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the Laboratory Schools and the Smart Museum of Art. The Jupiter Quartet will perform a free concert in the fourth floor atrium of the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine on Thursday, Oct. 3, providing a sample of music to come in the new season.

Iwano also has introduced the Jazz at the Logan series, which offers five concerts, and inaugurated the Music Across Genres series to give a home to performers who don't logically fall into standard categories. "There are moments I'm touched by a new work that I hadn't heard before," Iwano said. "It's good to have your palate refreshed."

These enhancements and new pricing initiatives to make music more affordable seem to be working. Last year, UChicago Presents reached more than 7,200 people, and Iwano said season ticket sales for this year's series already have exceeded those of the last two years by 20 percent. Upwards of 25 percent of attendees are students and other youth. 

"Music shouldn't be a special occasion thing. It should be regular and affordable," Iwano said.