If I were to identify the number one growth industry in Chicago music during my 36 years on the classical beat, it would unquestionably be chamber music.
Instrumental and vocal groups of every description have popped up across the metropolitan area, and while we have lost a couple of prominent, locally-based ensembles such as the Vermeer Quartet (which disbanded in 2008), numerous excellent groups have taken their place. This proliferation has in turn led to more concert activity covering an ever-widening spectrum of repertory. And audiences have grown apace.
At once a catalyst for and a reflection of the local chamber music boom is the Northwestern University Bienen School of Music's annual Winter Chamber Music Festival. Listeners looking to immerse themselves in the wealth of quartets, quintets, trios, sonatas and other smaller-scaled instrumental works know there is no better place to find such fare than at the festival's home base, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Evanston, for three weekends every January.
With a roster of performers that includes Bienen School faculty, Chicago Symphony Orchestra members and some of the nation's most promising young string quartets, the quality level of these concerts, which Blair Milton has directed since the inaugural festival in 1997, speaks for itself.
Milton, an adjunct associate professor at the Bienen School and a violinist in the CSO since 1975, invariably brings audience members an interesting and varied mix of music while introducing them to prize-winning chamber groups that are kicking up buzz in the classical world. The festival's 18th edition, which begins Friday and continues through Jan. 26 on the Northwestern campus, is no exception.
Milton says he's particularly excited about the Dover Quartet, which will make its area debut on Jan. 19. The group, in residence at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Caramoor Festival in New York, was booked for the festival months before it took awards in every category, including first prize, at Canada's Banff International String Quartet Competition in September. As Its local calling card, the Dover will offer string quartets by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich.
Other groups featured in the 2014 festival include the Miro, Parker and Lincoln quartets. The Miro Quartet has won top prizes at the Coleman, Fischoff and Banff competitions. The Parker Quartet has picked up a Grammy award and has won honors at various competitions. The Lincoln Quartet is made up of CSO string players.
The Miro ensemble will be joined by Israeli pianist Shai Wosner for Friday's festival opener, a program of Mozart and Beethoven quartets and Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor. CSO cellist Brant Taylor will be guest artist for the Lincoln Quartet's festival finale on Jan. 26. The concert is to include Schubert's String Quintet in C major and a rarely-heard arrangement for string quintet of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" violin-piano sonata.
A nostalgic blast from the past will be the all-Brahms program performed by violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi and cellist Marc Johnson (members of the now-defunct Vermeer Quartet) along with pianist Andrea Swan. The concert harkens to the very first winter chamber fest in 1997, when the entire series was devoted to music by Brahms. Johnson also will lead a chamber music master class Jan. 25 at Northwestern's Regenstein Recital Hall.
For yet another year, festival director Milton has given area chamber music aficionados sufficient reasons to postpone their winter get-aways.
The 2014 Winter Chamber Music Festival begins Friday and runs weekends through Jan. 26 at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. Subscriptions for the six-concert series are $130 for the general public, $54 for students. Single tickets for most concerts are $24 for the general public, $10 for students; 847-467-4000, pickstaiger.org.
The New Grove Dictionary of Opera calls Carl Nielsen's "Maskarade" ("Masquerade") "one of the most engaging of all 20th-century comic operas." It surely will come as a major discovery to listeners who know the Danish composer's music only from his six symphonies. Now this most successful of Danish operas, which was first performed in Copenhagen in 1906, is about to receive its belated Chicago premiere.
The Chicago-based vocal group VOX 3 Collective and the Lakeview Orchestra will present six fully-staged performances of "Maskarade" Jan. 18-25 at the Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble St. The opera will be sung in the original Danish, with English surtitles, by a cast of 32 local performers. Gregory Hughes will conduct, and the staging will be by Sally Eames and Brandon Hayes.
In the best comic-opera tradition, the plot concerns a young man's efforts to overcome his father's objections to his marrying his true love; the usual complications ensue. "Maskarade" is being given as part of VOX 3's ongoing festival of Danish arts and culture, produced with assistance from Chicago Community Trust, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and other sponsors. Tickets are $32 general admission, $16 for seniors and students; vox3.org/festival or vittumtheater.org.
Musicians club scholarships
The Musicians Club of Women could very well be the oldest club of its kind in Chicago, having been formed here in 1875, four years after the Great Chicago Fire and 16 years before the founding of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But the organization has another reason to be proud, and that is for its generous scholarship program to support talented, young, local female musicians.
This year the club announces it will be awarding a record $85,000 in stipends for students of voice, piano, strings and winds. And the all-volunteer organization is going all out to attract qualified applicants, particularly since many deserving young local musicians are unaware such financial assistance even exists, according to club members.
Applicants to the 2014 music scholarships and awards competition must be female U.S. citizens living and studying within 100 miles of Chicago. Age requirements are 23-32 for voice, 18-30 for piano and winds, 16-30 for strings (as of March 8, 2014). A $50 application fee, audio recording and resume are to be submitted along with the application form.
The competition will be held March 8 and 15 in Ganz Hall, Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University. Applications must be received by Feb. 1. All entrants will be notified by mail by Feb. 26 whether or not they have been approved to perform in the competition.
Previous award winners include Lyric Opera sopranos Nicole Cabell and Amber Wagner;; pianist Yoshiko Arahata; violinist Gallia Kastner; and cellist Emily Hu.
Further information is available at 630-858-8131 and the club's website, musiciansclubofwomen.org. Email enquiries should be addressed to email@example.com.