Fountain of Time: The Grossman Ensemble Provides Space for Creative Incubation
By Anne Goldberg-Baldwin
On August 21, 2020, the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition’s Grossman Ensemble released its debut album, Fountain of Time, featuring world premiere recordings by five composers across their first two seasons. The Grossman Ensemble, founded by Augusta Read Thomas, comprises of co-directors Anthony Cheung and Sam Pluta along with a core group of 13 instrumentalists who seek composers as guest conductors to workshop and facilitate the composers’ commissions, giving the works increased rehearsal and workshopping space to blossom into their fullest potential. On this album are the fruits of these musicians’ and composers’ labor, bringing these pieces to life in a far more collaborative process than is usually afforded in large ensemble rehearsals.
The album opens with Shulamit Ran’s Grand Rounds (2018), the first piece from the Grossman Ensemble’s inaugural concert, conducted by Ben Bolter. The opening sequence features an ethereal blend of one instrument seamlessly melding into another, featuring lush, haunting melodic fragments in the harp, played adeptly by Ben Melsky. The lonely, wistful oboe, beautifully played by Andrew Nogal, interweaves impeccable emotive projection as the piece unfolds and develops with the full ensemble.
Anthony Cheung’s Double Allegories (2019) consists of three complementary movements that investigate timbre and extramusical imagery through their evocative titles. Conducted by Michael Lewanski, Cheung’s first movement, “…of touch/heat,” features a delicate cacophony of scurrying lines passed through the entire ensemble, as if treating the ensemble as one instrument. Movement II, “…of winter/solitude,” features languid string lines that subtly spiral upwards as they simultaneously sink and sigh through woeful glissandi, masterfully played by violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg as well as violist Doyle Armbrust. The final movement, “…of breath/air” continues to explore timbre through breathy overpressure in the flute, beautifully performed by Tim Munro.
PHO (2019), both composed and conducted by David Dzubay, opens with a series of exquisite textures of tremolos and trills passed through various groups of instruments. PHO, which stands for Potentially Harmful Objects, potential threats to humans’ survival, is also inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Year of meteors,” which features forces that are perceived as threats to America. The Grossman Ensemble’s immaculate intonation brings Dzubay’s skillful writing to life, blending a variety of timbres into one fragile yet dense cloud of sound. Each of these sound clouds slices through the other textures of the piece, creating dripping icicles of clarity, beauty, and potential disaster if it should break off.
Tonia Ko’s Simple Fuel (2018), also conducted by Ben Bolter, is truly a beneficiary of the workshop-rehearsal format that the Grossman Ensemble practices. When Ko entered the rehearsal/workshop space with instructions, sketches, and a vulnerability for collaboration with the musicians, magic ensued from the process. The opening of the piece is a complex effect of toppling dominoes as the percussion and pizzicato and col legno battuto techniques careen up and down miniature dollhouse rollercoasters of the mind. As the piece builds, the ratcheted sounds collapse and break into sudden lurches through a variety of slap tongues and melodic flourishes that ephemerally evaporate from the atmosphere as quickly as they appear.
The final piece on the album, David Clay Mettens‘ stain, bloom, moon, rain (2020), conducted by Jerry Hou, is aptly named for its water colored, bleeding hues of multiphonics and overtones. In the first movement, “stain,” fragmentary melodic motifs emerge from and interrupt textural carpets of white noise and partials, created by cymbals and pitched instruments alike. “bloom/moon,” the second movement, separates families of instruments and almost harkens to moments of neo-romanticism, emerging and sparkling through the many trills and pitched percussion melodies. As the piece closes with the third movement, “rain,” the same sparkling textures develop, creating a dripping effect in the xylophone and pizzicati. The Grossman Ensemble’s impeccable intonation shines forth again in perfect blend and rhythmic integrity. The texture fades to nothing as the final violin solo sings with a nightingale emerging after a rainstorm, placing a poignant epitaph at the end of the entire album.
Fountain of Time shows the Grossman Ensemble’s wonderful promise as a group in addition to promoting the rare process they employ in inviting composers and conductors to participate in the rehearsal and workshop process. Common to other disciplines such as dance, it is rare that composers are afforded the space to experiment in real time and incubate their ideas. Limited rehearsal time often limits the possibilities of what an ensemble can comfortably tackle in a short amount of time, thus limiting a composer’s voice at times. Clearly, this process has yielded a wide array of masterfully orchestrated, engaging pieces with an army of collaborative performers eager to join in on the journey that is composition.
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