BY KYLE MacMILLAN
For the Sun-Times
While nearly every major city in the United States has some kind of a contemporary music ensemble or society, few can equal the longevity of the University of Chicago’s Contempo, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a series of concerts beginning Jan. 24.
One of this country’s best-known champions of new music, the Kronos Quartet, for example, marked its 40th anniversary two years ago. Present Music began in Milwaukee in 1982, and New York City’s Bang on a Can All-Stars, are comparative newcomers, making their debut in 1992.
“It’s an amazing milestone,” said Tim Munro, a flutist with Chicago-based eighth blackbird, a Grammy Award-winning contemporary sextet.
“Contempo at 50: Now and Then I”
• 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24 at Performance Hall, Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, 915 E. 60th St.; $25
“Contempo at 50: Now and Then II”
• 3 p.m. March 1 at Performance Hall, Logan Center; $25
“UChicago Resident Ensembles Showcase”
• 7:30 p.m. April 23 at Performance Hall, Logan Center; $25
“Tomorrow’s Music Today I”
• 7:30 p.m. May 6 at Performance Hall, Logan Center; free
“Tomorrow’s Music Today II”
• 7:30 p.m. May 15 at Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan; free
In 1964, Ralph Shapey, a widely recognized member of the University of Chicago’s composition faculty founded what was first known as the Contemporary Chamber Players, and it has been performing and promoting the music of the now since.
Contempo, as the group was renamed in 2004, has presented world premieres of works by past and present University of Chicago faculty members such as Shapey and John Eaton, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, as well as such distinguished composers as Mario Davidovsky, John Harbison, George Perle and Roger Sessions.
Unlike some contemporary-music organizations, Contempo does not push a particular style or approach, offering instead a wide-ranging, open-minded look at the today’s vast musical scene — everything from operas to piano quintets to art songs.
“You might go to a Contempo concert,” Munro said, “and hear the craziest, weirdest piece of bananas music from Europe and then you might hear a sort of warm-toned piece music of an Israeli composer. There is no rhyme or reason in the best possible sense.”
Contempo calls itself as a new-music collective, with the Pacifica Quartet and eighth blackbird, which became artists-in-residence in 1998 and 2000 respectively, as its central, nationally known performers.
“We’re kind of like their hometown bands,” Munro said. “So, whereas many other series will cycle through a bunch of different groups in like bits and pieces, we always form a cohesive core, which gives the series a level of quality below which it doesn’t go.”
In addition, Contempo draws on the University of Chicago faculty and other top musicians from around Chicago and elsewhere in the country, depending on the personnel needs of the works on each program.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Shulamit Ran, a member of the University of Chicago faculty since 1973, took over as artistic director of Contempo in 2002. She plans to step down after this season and retire from teaching, and it was announced Friday that her successor will be composer Marta Ptaszynska, who joined the University of Chicago music faculty in 1998.
In 2004, when the collective notched its 40th anniversary, Ran instituted several major changes, including moving some its performances to venues away from the University of Chicago, including the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park.
“This was an important part of making a stronger connection with other parts of the city, so, in sense, you could say the entire city became campus rather than all activities taking place on campus in Hyde Park,” Ran said.
In addition, she started “double bill” programs, mixing Contempo’s usual classical performers with guest artists from outside the field, such as Polish jazz vocalist Grażyna Auguścik and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau.
“All these things together started in some sense a new chapter,” Ran said. “At the same time, we’re also about the same values that had been part of the Contemporary Chamber Players all along – the kind of programming, the kind of insistence of highest level of performance. So, there is change, but there is also continuity.”
Contempo’s five-concert 50th-anniversary season will feature world premieres by three noted composers — Eaton, Sofia Gubaidulina and Gunther Schuller — as well as a look back at some of the standout works the group has presented in the past, such as Shapey’s Concertante No. 1 for Trumpet and Ten Instruments (1984).
A major part of Contempo’s mission is performing the work of University of Chicago’s doctoral composition students. As usual, two of its 2015 programs, “Tomorrow’s Music Today,” on May 6 and 15 will be devoted to their compositions.
In addition, a concert on April 23 will consist of past and present works by composition students that have caught the fancy of the Pacifica Quartet and eighth blackbird, including some that the latter has made part of its regular performing repertoire.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.