The Ravinia Festival and Grant Park Music Festival might snare the most attention during the summer classical-music season, but the two high-profile events are not the only places to enjoy top-quality music-making.
From June 2 through Aug. 25, Rush Hour Concerts will present its 16th summer series of after-work, 30-minute chamber-music performances at 5:45 p.m. in St. James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron, with doors opening at 5 p.m. for pre-concert receptions. What sets this series apart is not only its unusual start time and short duration but also its free admission policy. Audiences typically range from 400 to 600 attendees.
“It’s something where you can just stop in on your way home from work, or it’s a 30-minute concert that lets you dip your toe in the water and see what this whole chamber-music thing is about,” said Anthony Devroye, who took over as artistic director in September. (He also serves as violist of the Avalon String Quartet, which is in residence at the Northern Illinois University School of Music.)
The concerts also serve as a showcase for area classical organizations and musicians, including members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This summer’s lineup kicks off June 2 with Christopher Martin, the CSO’s principal trumpet, joining organist Nathan Laube in a performance of Petr Eben’s 1976 duet, Okna (Windows), which was inspired by Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows. (WFMT-FM will live broadcast each concert.)
“Chris has just done extraordinary stuff for us for many years,” Devroye said. “He’s always participated enthusiastically in our Make Music Chicago Day. He often plays with the amateur band that throws itself together for that day. And he’s done some other featured performances on our series.”
Other CSO musicians performing on this summer’s schedule include assistant principal cellist Kenneth Olsen and cellist Brant Taylor, as well as such frequent collaborators as pianist Winston Choi, who regularly appears on the CSO’s MusicNOW series.
Taylor, who frequently performs on Rush Hour Concerts programs and serves as the organization’s consulting artistic director, said that Rush Hour’s chamber-music concerts provide him with a supplementary creative outlet along with teaching and solo appearances. “If you play in an orchestra,” he said, “no matter how high the level is that orchestra plays at, in order to stay artistically satisfied, I have to do other things.”
At the same time, he was drawn to founder Deborah Sobol’s vision for the distinctive series. (Sobol, who died in 2014, will be saluted June 9 at a Rush Hour performance by the Civitas Ensemble, which features CSO musicians Olsen and violinist Yuan-Qing Yu.) Taylor also appreciates the cathedral’s accommodating acoustics and finds the audiences receptive and attentive. “I realized quickly that it was quite a unique organization on Chicago’s cultural landscape,” Taylor said, “and it was filling a niche that was not readily filled by many other organizations.”
For his concert on July 21, Taylor will team with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, Rush Hour’s associate artistic director, in Strauss’ Sonata in F Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 6. “This is a piece that is not that often performed,” Taylor said. “Cellists know it, but it’s not even usually one of the first sonatas that cellists learn. I’ve been in this business long enough that I’ve played a lot of the standard repertoire, and I enjoy showing a few things that are a little off the beaten path and they [audiences] are not liable to hear frequently in another venue around town.”
Under the leadership of Devroye, the summer series will take on an over-arching theme, what he described as a look at “composers working at different intersections of time and place.” Some of the concerts will evoke sounds of past eras, others will present the here and now, and still others will examine music that was ahead of its time.
As an example of a glimpse back to the past, members of the Chicago-based Haymarket Opera Company will present a June 23 program featuring arias and ensembles from operas by such Baroque-era composers as George Frideric Handel, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Alessandro Stradella.
A mini-series titled “Here and Now” on June 16, July 14 and Aug. 18 will offer a snapshot of the musical present, featuring mostly recent works by such Chicago-based composers as Glenn Kotche and Augusta Read Thomas.
As for offerings that have transcended their time, Devroye points to the Avalon Quartet’s performance of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, on Aug. 11. “By this point in Beethoven’s life, he had so thoroughly gone beyond what the rest of the music world had done or was even ready to accept and was working in this realm that the rest of the world had not caught up to yet,” Devroye said. “We hear this today, and for having been written almost 200 years ago, it’s just so strikingly modernist and forward-looking and ear-bending and experimental-sounding.”
In addition to its summer music series, Rush Hour Concerts will presents its fifth annual Make Music Chicago on June 21, a daylong celebration of music-making inspired by the Fête de la Musique in Paris. Area residents of all ages and backgrounds are invited to take part in more than 200 performances and participatory events in 70 locations across the city, including the Sousapalooza and Father’s Day Solstice Sing-Along. For more information, visit makemusicchicago.com.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.