Access Contemporary Music kicked off its seventh annual Thirsty Ears Festival on Saturday, the city’s only classical music street festival. Wilson Street between Hermitage and Ravenswood is blocked off for the weekend festival, which will feature seventeen musical acts on the main stage as well as food trucks, vendors, children’s activities and the Dovetail Brewery tent.
Like other Chicago outdoor classical music festivals, Thirsty Ears, the block-party atmosphere encourages concertgoers to chat while sipping their beers, while face-painted kids chase chairs with their arms to keep the audience afloat. And from the collections. The turnout on Saturday afternoon was encouraging, and the large number of families, including those with many children, is a testament to the success of this model.
As with any outdoor music festival, the music sometimes takes a bit of a back seat to the other distractions. The festival takes place on a quiet residential street in Ravenswood, where one expects relative quiet. Unfortunately, the constant stream of planes overhead and the roar of the Metra train to the east were frequent distractions.
As such, it was often difficult to hear performers, and details and nuances were easily lost even with speakers. This caused more problems in some collections than others, depending on the instrument, the piece and the performers.
Taking the stage at 4 p.m. was the Wurtz–Berger duo, consisting of pianist-composer Amy Wurtz and cellist Alison Berger. Unfortunately, problems with the sound system delayed their performance by fifteen minutes. Even then, there was still occasional feedback noise, the balance wasn’t great between players, and it was hard to hear details unless you were in the first three rows. Also, despite the piano being a baby, the miking has resulted in making it feel like a miniature electronic keyboard.
Nevertheless, the duo continued with Debussy’s expressive interpretations with great professionalism. Cello Sonata. Employing the same musical language as DBC, Seth Busted Hot streak Made for a smooth transition. (Busted is the executive director of Access Contemporary Music and a co-ordinator of this festival.) Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 also makes an appearance, the easiest of the set to weave in amid the sonic distractions.
It was in Jane O’Leary that the stage arrangement brought the two down the most. Only signs remain. The most sensitive modern piece on the program, the work was full of dramatic effects and extended techniques; Ununited by any traditional melody, harmonic or rhythmic thread, it was difficult to follow in a casual outdoor setting. O’Leary’s piece proved there’s a fine line between challenging people and alienating them, though the material might be better off indoors than at an outdoor festival.
Violist Rose Wollman explores where that line lies in her solo program based on Leggety’s Viola Sonata. In her program, she chose four movements from sonatas called the lope, facsimile, lamento, and chaconne chromatic and combined each with two related pieces to create what Wollmann called a “triptych.” By beginning each triptych with a baroque selection, Wolman intended to show how Ligeti was inspired by baroque forms and symbols. A themed contemporary piece, including her own, closed each collection.
Although the thematic connections between Lugeti’s movements and other selections were not always entirely clear, Wolman’s program was an innovative way to contextualize and further integrate Lugeti’s sonatas. Baroque pieces, notably the Pascaglia movement from Heinrich Ignaz Franz Bieber’s Sonata, the elegantly played palate cleansers and Wollmann’s own piece; WanderlustBased on the same ground bass as Pachelbel’s canon in D, it stood out among modern selections. Leggety’s moves, however, seemed to leave the audience a little restless.
The Black Oak Ensemble, consisting of violist Desiree Ruhstraat, violist Aurelien Fort Pederzoli and cellist David Cunliffe, took a more crowd-pleasing approach to their programs. Beginning with a selection from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the Black Oak Ensemble immediately displayed musical certainty and ease playing off each other. They flowed as a unit and were able to be completely expressive and create intimate moments even with the limitations of the sound system.
A series of pieces by lesser-known, early-twentieth-century French composers followed—taken from the group’s latest Sedile recording—including a delightful trio by Henri Tomasi. Pederzoli’s solo of the night was clear and fine, and the third movement’s rustic peasant dance featured a captivating violin solo from Ruhstraat. A dramatic contrast of language by Gustave Samazeulh and a screeching finale by Jean Crass equate Pederzoli to music. of Pirates of the Caribbean Also featured. Although these pieces are all vague and often intricately choreographed, the trio’s engaging and committed performances made for thrilling performances.
In the collection’s only contemporary selection, two movements from Chicago-based composer Mark Melits’ Tapas They rounded up their collection. These were popular with their post-minimalism style. The Black Oak Ensemble seems to have found a sweet spot in their programming for what kind of modern classical music and classical music in general works in this area.
The Thirsty Ears Festival continues on Sunday from 2-9pm. Suggested donation is $10. amusic.org
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