Amid pandemic, Grossman Ensemble makes recording debut
By Howard Reich
Arts organizations have devised various ways of dealing with the pandemic, and one of the most tangibly satisfying comes from the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition (at the University of Chicago).
The Grossman Ensemble – its resident band – has released “Fountain of Time,” an immensely appealing album that illuminates much of what CCCC is all about: nurturing new ideas in concert music. Each of the CD’s five compositions was given its world premiere by the Grossman Ensemble and is captured here in lustrous detail.
From the mystical opening pages of Shulamit Ran’s “Grand Rounds” to the instrumental sensuality of Anthony Cheung’s “Double Allegories,” from the exquisitely detailed tone painting of David Dzubay’s “PHO” to the subtle textural shifts of Tonia Ko’s “Simple Fuel,” the recording attests to the stylistic breadth the CCCC seeks to foster. It also documents the Grossman Ensemble’s high performance caliber, established during its first performance, in December 2018.
“It’s just possible that someday people will look back at what happened Friday night at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center and say: I was there,” I wrote in my Tribune review. “Augusta Read Thomas – the center’s founder and director – welcomed a large audience, thanked supporters and illuminated the uniqueness of the venture. For though rehearsal time tends to be scarce where contemporary scores are concerned, the Grossman Ensemble was afforded 'a rehearsal process that started three months ago,’ she said.”
That’s what you hear in this recording, drawn from several concerts and rehearsal sessions. Yet despite the luxury of preparation time the Grossman Ensemble lavishes on complex new scores, the excitement and spontaneity of the readings come through as well.
Why release a debut album in the midst of a pandemic?
“One of my concerns is to be able to pay the players,” says Thomas, who – like all music presenters – had to drop scheduled performances by the Grossman Ensemble, as well as other planned CCCC concerts. “Last spring, we paid them fully, even though we did nothing, because that’s the right thing to do.”
With fall events also scotched, Thomas and colleagues had another idea: “Why don’t we put out a CD?” she says. “It keeps the work of the center moving forward, and it’s also a chance to pay the musicians again. All the music was in the can, beautifully recorded.”
Even so, producing a debut album amid a pandemic was not easy. Choosing repertoire, editing the recordings, and other details were handled via Zoom meetings, phone consultations, email exchanges, document sharing and the like.
Thomas notes that she didn’t select the recording’s repertoire; it was chosen by a committee of the ensemble, with everyone welcome to listen to the evolving edits.
“It became collaborative,” says Thomas. “The resulting pieces were chosen to show a diversity of style, aesthetics, background, age and so on.”
In so doing, “Fountain of Time” stands as a physical representation of what the Grossman Ensemble has been able to achieve since its founding.
The question is how will the ensemble and CCCC, both young institutions that Thomas and colleagues had been brainstorming for years, emerge after the current public health crisis?
“It’s really like the rest of the world – everyone is on a time out and on hold,” says Thomas, a University of Chicago composition professor. "We’re just trying our best to keep going and to be ready to dive right back into full throttle when COVID will have subsided or passed.
"I’m very happy that we have not canceled anything, we’ve just postponed. That feels like a really good position to be in, in the sense that we have the funding.
“In March we’ll do something online. We’re postponing the spring cycle as late as humanly possible. We have 16 world premieres that we’ll have to make up, the composers that were already booked and contracted. Going forward, it’s going to be a process of putting it back together.”
Yet Thomas and partners have not stopped aspiring.
“If we weren’t in COVID, I think the Grossman Ensemble should tour,” she says. "It’s eminently doable.
“In a way, this (recording) is part of the calling card: Here’s what we do.”
As for the album’s title, it refers both to the name of a Laredo Taft sculpture at the west end of the Midway Plaisance and, equally important, to the long gestation the Grossman Ensemble accords its world premieres.
“We put these pieces together over three months,” says Thomas. “The ‘Fountain of Time’ sculpture is literally just a couple blocks away from the Logan Center,” where the Grossman Ensemble performs.
“So ‘Fountain of Time’ was a nice pun to what we do.”
Read this story at chicagotribune.com.