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MusicNOW Series Serves Up Pizza, Beer, and Contemporary Music

Music Now at the Harris Theater © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

Music Now at the Harris Theater © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

Music Now at the Harris Theater © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

Music Now at the Harris Theater © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

Is there a better way to start your week than with cold beer, hot pizza, and awesome music?

On Monday, June 1, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s final MusicNOW concert of the 2014-15 season presents contemporary music by some of today’s most exciting living composers: Esa-Pekka Salonen, Marc Mellits, John Zorn, and Myra Melford. The audience is invited to join the composers and performers for an after party with free pizza and free beer.

Yup, you read that right: FREE PIZZA AND FREE BEER!

“Contemporary music and chamber music have gotten a little stiff,” said Mellits. “MusicNOW breaks away from traditional concert formats. I like that it’s not quite so stiff. There are video projections. There’s an after party. It’s such a beautiful way to experience music.”

The MusicNOW series began during the 1999-2000 season. Though, since Mead Composers-in-Residence Anna Clyne and Mason Bates began curating the series beginning in the 2010-11 season, its overall audience has increased. New patrons have attended these concerts as well as other CSO programming, a CSO marketing spokesperson reported.

“Mason and myself have been committed to programing a wide array of musical styles and genres that reflect the diversity of music today,” Clyne said by email. Bates said, also by email, that they strive to include “everything from thorny modernism to gentle ambience. A guiding mission has been to avoid an overemphasis on any one aesthetic in favor of eclectic programs of pieces that complement each other.”

Contemporary music and chamber music have gotten a little stiff. MusicNOW breaks away from traditional concert formats…It’s such a beautiful way to experience music.Marc Mellits

“Transforming MusicNOW into an immersive experience has been a hugely rewarding part of our residency,” Bates said. He and Clyne have enjoyed presenting the concerts in the Harris Theatre to “guide the audience through new music in a way that’s both fun and informative.”

The audiences at MusicNOW concerts are surprisingly diverse. “You see young people, old people, and everyone in between,” Mellits explained. “Typically at new music concerts, audiences are very young. At MusicNOW, you have people of all ages screaming and hollering for great music.”

The opening concert of the 2014/15 season of MusicNOW, © Todd Rosenberg Photography

The opening concert of the 2014/15 season of MusicNOW, © Todd Rosenberg Photography

On Monday night, audiences will have the chance to scream and holler for Mellits’ Octet for string ensemble.

When Octet premiered it was paired with Mendelssohn’s famous String Octet, Op.20. “Some of the string writing and how Mendelssohn handles the violas is really wonderful, and I definitely tried to steal some of those ideas for my own Octet,” Mellits chuckled. “My favorite composers are Vivaldi and Corelli and Bach, and in writing this Octet there’s a baroque influence which is probably even stronger than the influence of the Mendelssohn.”

Octet has a lot of mechanical stuff. If you think about cogs turning wheels turning something else,  that’s the way Octet works: everything depends on everything else,” he said. “The parts by themselves often don’t give you much of the flavor of the whole piece, but when they come together, they create a larger tapestry of sound. There’s also the opposite of that – a lot of rhythmic units, and people playing the same rhythmic unit all the time.”

Typically at new music concerts, audiences are very young. At MusicNOW, you have people of all ages screaming and hollering for great music.Marc Mellits

Mellits thought in terms of rhythmic units in Octet to suit the performers who premiered it. “The original commission was for a professional quartet, from the Syracuse Symphony, and a tremendous student quartet, from the Syracuse Youth Orchestras. So, four of the parts are slightly harder than the other four. I kept rhythmic units together to create a big, aggressive sound, but in a way that helps the younger musicians out.”

Composer Myra Melford will present works on Monday’s program that, like Mellits’s Octet, were also composed for two different kinds of musicians. Melford’s The Large Ends the Way and The Whole Tree Gone were both conceived for improvisers and non-improvisers.

The Large Ends the Way appears on her album The Same River Twice, which takes its name from a saying by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Because Melford’s works contain composed and improvised elements, no two performances of them will ever be the same.

Improvising music, while exciting for audiences, presents creative challenges for some performers.

“My band is a group of improvisers, and not everyone in the MusicNOW ensemble is an improviser,” Melford said. “So, I am experimenting with strategies to provide freedom for non-improvisers to create color and texture as background against which improvisers can add things.” She aims for what she describes as a “chamber music aesthetic with the malleability of a jazz ensemble” that she has developed over the years.

She learned some strategies for achieving this sound after an experience in the late 1980s with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. “I was asking them to do some things that they weren’t familiar with and created some discomfort. Rather than working with them, they kind of shut down,” she said. Since, she’s learned that “you have to find a way to get musicians to be comfortable, but also to create situations in which it is okay for them to try something new.”

Rounding out Monday evening’s program is Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dichotomie,  a work for solo piano which will be performed by Winston Choi, and John Zorn’s Goetia, a series of eight “incantations” for solo violin which will be performed by CSO Assistant Concertmaster Yuan-Qing Yu. Mason Bates, Anna Clyne, and Myra Melford will also take the stage to participate in the performance. Cliff Colnot will conduct.

For information about the upcoming MusicNOW performance, visit the CSO’s website or CSO’s Sounds and Stories.

 

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