WFMT is excited to collaborate again this year with the Chicago Humanities Festival. Earlier this week we featured an encore interview with CHF headliner Laurie Anderson. Here’s more on this year’s festival from Artistic Director Matti Bunzl:
Anna Clyne and My Grandfather
Growing up in Vienna, classical music was always in my life. It was on the radio and television as well as at school, where I had music instruction from grade one (all of us could choose between lessons in piano or violin – free of charge). Most importantly, though, I had my grandparents, who had fled Vienna for London in 1938, but returned in 1946, mainly because they missed Austrian culture, which is to say classical music.
Every year, they went to the Salzburg Festival and they were big supporters of the Vienna Philharmonic, frequently accompanying them on tour. And once in a while, they brought me along, either to a concert in the Musikverein or a performance at the Staatsoper (two of my strongest memories from those days in the early ‘80s: shaking hands with Leonard Bernstein and seeing Edita Gruberova and José Carreras in La Traviata.)
I loved it! From the pomp and circumstance to the incredible music! But once in a while, there was a damper on it all – all of a sudden, there might be some tension, rustling in the audience, or applause that would go from frenetic to merely polite. Even an occasional boo was possible. It typically occurred in the middle of a concert, and as my grandfather explained it happened whenever there was “difficult” music on the program. I’m not sure I readily heard the difference. But to the audience, it was clear.
As I understand now, Vienna was hardly a hotbed of the avant-garde in those days. Darmstadt, it decidedly was not. Instead, it still wallowed in the Vienna School, the first that is, of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. My grandparents were themselves socialized into that aesthetic. They considered Brahms to be highly progressive, Mahler difficult, and Schoenberg and Berg more or less intolerable.
And yet, I remember my grandfather always clapping with particular enthusiasm after one of the “difficult” pieces. Typically, he would say that he didn’t understand it, but it was interesting and he was glad that he heard it.
Especially in hindsight, his attitude strikes me as pretty remarkable. True, his own tastes might have been conventional, but he saw the value, even the necessity, in challenging traditions. And even though he, himself, might not like the innovations, he was there to support them.
I, myself, have a less gallant approach. I actually like “difficult” music – not always and every piece – but I think of it as a thrill to hear sonic formations that have never, or only rarely, been heard before.
And I am thrilled that, at the CHF, we have been able to champion contemporary music. Among recent events, this centrally includes last year’s world premiere of Oil-Free Blush, a remarkable piece for solo cello, co-commissioned by the CHF and the CSO’s Katinka Kleijn.
The work, inspired by last year’s Festival on The Body, addressed the carcinogenic properties of makeup in a suite of movements composed by Marcos Balter, Megan Beugger, Phyllis Chen, Pablo Chin, Nomi Epstein, Sebastian Huydts, and Du Yun. (Watch the performance, which also included a Q&A with WFMT’s Andrew Patner)
We are continuing our engagement with contemporary music in this year’s Festival on tech•knowledgē. This time around, we are teaming up with the CSO to present a performance and conversation with Anna Clyne, one of the orchestra’s two composers-in-residence. Under the title “Composing Music in the Digital Age,” Clyne will reflect on her use of technology in the creation of her acoustic and electro-acoustic music (which has earned the admiration of such diverse artists and writers as Björk, Alex Ross, and Esa-Pekka Salonen). In particular, Clyne will discuss her seminal composition Choke, a piece for baritone saxophone and tape she developed with saxophonist Argeo Ascani. The two will perform the work, recall its creation, and reflect on the opportunities and challenges presented by the latest technologies.
I know that there will be plenty of new music aficionados in the audience when Clyne and Ascani present their work, just as there were last year for Kleijn’s remarkable performance. What I truly hope, though, is that there will also be some folks like my grandfather, who may not necessarily like the music they will hear but believe in its importance – the importance to continued creation, not in spite of all the great music we already have, but because of it.
Classical Music and the CHF
What is the place of classical music – or any form of performance art, really – in a Humanities Festival? We think about this question a lot when we are programming the CHF – and it has resulted in a series of events that are truly exciting to us.
So where do we begin in the process? Our starting point is a desire to present as all-compassing a Festival as we can imagine. To that end, we extend the notion of Humanities beyond the narrow academic definition. Yes, we do present literary scholars, art historians, and other academics who seek to elucidate the history of culture. But we never leave it at that. We also feature practitioners of the various creative disciplines – writers, artists, dancers, particularly if their works resonate beyond their immediate field.
At the same time, we are conscious in our desire not to duplicate the fabulous work that is already being done by Chicago’s other cultural institutions. Particularly in the field of classical music, of course, we are blessed with some of the country’s foremost organizations. And there would be little point to add yet another straight-up performance to what is already a wonderfully full calendar.
So this is how we go about it: we ask ourselves what a classical music event might look like in a distinct humanities setting. What would make it unique?
There is not just one answer, of course. But our basic proposition is to find ways to imbue performance with some form of humanistic reflection. Let me give an example from last year’s Festival on The Body. There, we created an program that we called, somewhat sheepishly, A Camerata on the Body. A scholarly event staged in 18th-century style, it featured University of Chicago historian of science Robert Richards and Ars Antigua, the early music ensemble led by Jerry Fuller. Together, they conceived a program that revealed connections among three towering figures of that century’s turn: Goethe, Mozart, and Schubert. Combining brief lectures with musical selections (just as it was done during the high enlightenment), Richards and Ars Antigua were able to excavate these masters’ shared interests in concepts of the body and science.
We are pairing up with Ars Antigua again for this year’s Festival tech•knowledgē. This time around, Jerry Fuller’s band is backing Rachel Barton Pine. And again, there will be something different about the event. Barton Pine is a celebrated violinist, of course. Much less known, though, is her strong interest in the history of her instrument. As it happens, Barton Pine not only collects ancient string instruments but has spent considerable time mastering them. One of those instruments is the viola d’amore, the “viola of love” – a 14-stringed hybrid of the violin and viola da gamba that set 17th-century hearts aflutter.
We can’t wait for Barton Pine to perform the viola d’amore on the CHF stage. The music, a romp through the instrument’s repertoire which includes works by Telemann and Vivaldi, promises to be spectacular. But I’m just as excited about Barton Pine’s comments on the viola d’amore, both in terms of its technological particulars and its relation to subsequent string instruments. Those comments will make up a significant portion of the event, giving it the very flavor we look for when programming classical music at the CHF. I can’t wait!