'Love' is in the air at richly stocked Beethoven Festival

This time around, even Rahm Emanuel is feeling the love. The fact that the Chicago mayor has proclaimed Sept. 7-15 "Beethoven Festival Week in Chicago" can only help to lure more curiosity seekers to the festival's third annual edition, which continues daily through Sunday at the Merit School of Music in the West Loop.

While attendance has picked up over previous years, there's always room for more warm bodies. And this year's offerings – more than 100 multidisciplinary events packed into nine days – make this an event you ignore at your own peril.

The Chicago-based, nonprofit International Beethoven Project, which is presenting Beethoven Festival: "LOVE 2013," wants our town to rank right up there with New York, Paris and London when it comes to putting on world-class arts festivals. And while project president George Lepauw isn't there yet, he is making a determined effort. Who else in Chicago music has this man's outsize vision?

This year's movable feast of classical, popular, old, new and world music; jazz; dance; theater; visual art; fashion and literature – loosely inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven's love letters to his "Immortal Beloved" – revels in a bigger-than-ever talent pool of performers from Chicago and around the globe. Funders are noticing. A $100,000 contribution from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation is helping to prime the funding pump for it and future festivals.

And there's a healthy synergy of impulse between the festival and the Merit School, which gives disadvantaged school kids from across the city access to quality music education. Many Merit students are taking advantage of Lepauw's opening his doors to all students, free of charge. How gratifying it was to hear a packed hall of mostly young people whooping with pleasure following a thorny program of electro-acoustical music by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Hans Thomalla, as played by Chicago's Ensemble Dal Niente on Sunday night.

The school's Gottlieb Hall is so much more attractive, welcoming and centrally located than the festival's previous venues, with acoustics worthy of a world arts fest. And it is being stocked with a roster that includes German composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher; pianists Christopher O'Riley, Anthony Molinaro and Lepauw; violinists Rachel Kolly D'Alba and Rachel Barton Pine; cellists Matt Haimovitz and Gabriel Cabezas; the International Contemporary Ensemble, and many more. Numerous artists again are reducing or turning back their fees just to be a part of the genre-leaping event.

Alas, the program book contains more puffery than actual information about the music, and some of the events presented thus far felt rather lax in preparation and presentation. But scattered glitches and miscalculations are to be expected in a wildly ambitious, densely programmed festival of this sort. At the concerts I was able to catch over the last couple of days, artists and audience members alike shared in the enthusiasm with which Lepauw threw himself into his polymath role of producer, performer and ubiquitous host.

A "Beethoven Salon" adjacent to the main concert hall was adorned with art works and blow ups (in translation) of love letters Beethoven sent to his mystery lover. The converted classroom provided a relaxed setting for audience members to mingle with performers over drinks after the concerts.

It also provided a suitably intimate site for a Monday afternoon concert of 16th and 17th century instrumental and vocal music built around the Baroque "affects," or different aspects of love. The program was carefully conceived and stylishly executed by the Chicago period-instrument ensemble Callipygian Players, with Barton Pine as guest artist. She and violinist Martin Davids, the group's director, each got a chance to strut her and his virtuoso chops in pieces by Heinrich Biber and Johann Schmelzer.

I was also pleased to catch up with two inordinately gifted young artists headed for fast-track careers, Canadian violinist Nikki Chooi and Chicago-born cellist Cabezas. Both were joined on Monday evening by violist Matthew Lipman and Lepauw for a program of chamber music by Beethoven, Schumann and Alfred Schnittke. Such was the finely honed unanimity the musicians brought to these scores that you could well have mistaken this ad hoc ensemble for a seasoned chamber group. Chooi, Lipman and Cabezas brought controlled intensity to the Schnittke, an unsettling if gripping essay in pain, bitterness and, at the end, numbed resignation.

Dal Niente remains an always-welcome visitor to the festival, and a potent account of Stockhausen's "Kontakte" ("Contacts") by members Greg Beyer (percussion) and Mabel Kwan (piano and percussion) reminded one why this total-serialist fusion of synthesized and live instrumental sounds has attained classic status amid the avant-garde canon of the late 1950s. The score held one's attention far better than Thomalla's "The Brightest Form of Absence" (2011, Chicago premiere), a scattershot jumble for soprano, live electronics, video and instrumental groups positioned around the room. It was hard to see what, if anything, the video – sights and sounds of objects dragged across the sands of the Mojave Desert – was meant to convey.

But don't despair. The festival – "our little party," as Lepauw wryly calls it – is reserving some of its most important events for the remaining five days.

You won't want to miss the world premieres of chamber works by Chicago's Mischa Zupko (the festival's director of new music projects), John Zorn, Mohammed Fairouz and Glenn Kotche on Thursday night; or the final two orchestral concerts of the event (including Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth symphonies), Pintscher conducting, Saturday and Sunday nights. Saturday afternoon will bring the premieres of 28 classical and rock bagatelles inspired by Beethoven's iconic Fifth Symphony.

Other highlights include Chicago's Lincoln Trio on Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon; the ensemble Prometheus Modern playing two late-night programs of Chicago composers' music on Wednesday and Friday; French works performed by harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, Kolly d'Alba and the Spektral Quartet Thursday afternoon and evening; the ICE ensemble's pairing of Beethoven and Pintscher chamber works on Friday night; and the eclectic chamber works of resident composer Derek Bermel on Saturday afternoon.

That's some "party." You can check out the full schedule at beethovenfestival2013.com.

'Giovanna d'Arco' symposium

The Center for Italian Opera Studies at the University of Chicago is hosting a free symposium, "Giovanna d'Arco in Chicago," from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday in the Performance Hall of Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. The event is presented to herald Chicago Opera Theater's upcoming production of the early Verdi opera, opening Sept. 21 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Led by Verdi scholar Philip Gossett, Sunday sessions will include lectures about Verdi's opera in its historical context, musical excerpts performed by COT artists and a roundtable discussion about the production and its relationship to the critical edition of Giuseppe Verdi's works.

For free registration, or to order a $12 box lunch, contact center coordinator Beth Parker at parkeropera@uchicago.edu.

Sharps and flats

"Against Forgetting," a tribute to Holocaust survivors by composer Robert Lombardo and his late wife, librettist Kathleen Lombardo, will highlight Fulcrum Point New Music Project's 15th annual Shanti: Concert for Peace, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. The free, interactive program of music from India and the U.S. is interactive, which means audience members may ring gongs for peace: 52 of them will be provided; fulcrumpoint.org.

The Avalon String Quartet, ensemble-in-residence at Northern Illinois University, is back for a third season at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will perform a Bartok quartet cycle over six concerts. The series will begin at 2 p.m. Sunday in Fullerton Hall, 111 S. Michigan Ave. Quartets by Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Schubert, Mozart and others will round out the programs. Concerts are free with museum admission; avalonquartet.com.

 

 

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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