Chicago Classical Review » » Technical issues aside, Thirsty Ears Festival offers a wide range of music in a relaxed, open-air setting

Viola player Rose Wollman performed at the Thirsty Ears Festival on Saturday. Photo: K. Buzard

Access Contemporary Music kicked off its seventh annual Thirsty Ears Festival on Saturday, the city’s only classical music street festival. Wilson Street between Hermitage and Ravenswood has been cordoned off for the weekend festival, which features seventeen musical acts on the main stage as well as a host of food trucks, vendors, children’s activities and a Dovetail Brewery tent .

Unlike Chicago’s other outdoor classical music festivals, Thirsty Ears’ laid-back, festive atmosphere encourages onlookers to chat while sipping their beers, make-up kids chasing each other across the seats with popsicles in hand and participants to float in and out of sets. The encouraging number of people present on Saturday afternoon, including many families with young children, testifies to the success of this model.

Like any outdoor music festival, music has sometimes become a bit secondary to other distractions. With the festival taking place on a quaint residential street in Ravenswood, one would expect it to be relatively quiet. Unfortunately, the constant stream of planes overhead and the roar of the Metra train to the east were frequent distractions.

As a result, performers were often hard to hear, and details and nuances were easily lost, even with sound amplification. This was more of a problem in some sets than others, depending on the instrumentation, the piece, and the performers.

At 4 p.m., the Wurtz-Berger duo, composed of pianist-composer Amy Wurtz and cellist Alyson Berger, took the stage. Unfortunately, problems with the sound system delayed their set by fifteen minutes. Even then, there were still occasional feedback noises, balance wasn’t great between players, and it was hard to hear details or nuances unless you were in the front three rows. Also, even though the piano was a grand piano, the effect of miking it was to make it sound like a small electronic keyboard.

Nevertheless, the duo continued with the utmost professionalism with an expressive interpretation of Debussy cello sonata. Employing a musical language similar to that of Debussy, Seth Boustead Hot series made for a smooth transition. (Boustead is the executive director of Access Contemporary Music and the coordinator for that festival.) Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 also made an appearance, which was the easiest piece to pick up amid the sonic distractions.

Where the staging disappointed the duo the most was in Jane O’Leary Only the gestures remain. The most esoteric contemporary piece of the program, the work was full of percussive effects and extended techniques; being held together by no traditional melodic, harmonic or rhythmic thread, it was difficult to follow in a casual outdoor setting. O’Leary’s play proved that there is a fine line between challenging people and alienating them, although the play may perform better in an indoor concert hall than an outdoor festival.

Violist Rose Wollman has also explored where this line lies in her solo program based on Ligeti’s Viola Sonata. In her program, she selected four movements from the difficult sonata—Loop, Facsar, Lamento, and Chaconne Chromatique—and paired each of them with two related pieces to form what Wollman called “triptychs.” By beginning each triptych with a Baroque selection, Wollman intends to show how Ligeti draws inspiration from Baroque forms and gestures. A thematically related contemporary piece, including one of her own, crowned each set.

Although the thematic connections between Ligeti’s movements and the other selections were not always entirely apparent, Wollman’s program was an innovative way to contextualize Ligeti’s sonata and make it more digestible. The Baroque pieces, particularly the Passacaglia movement of a sonata by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, were elegantly played palace cleaners, and Wollman’s own piece, spirit of adventure, based on the same bass as Pachelbel’s Canon in D, stood out among contemporary selections. Ligeti’s movements, however, seemed to make the audience a bit restless.

The Black Oak Ensemble, made up of violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, violist Aurélien Fort Pederzoli and cellist David Cunliffe, has adopted a more user-friendly approach to its programming. Beginning with a selection of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the Black Oak Ensemble immediately demonstrated their musical confidence and ease in playing with each other. They flowed as a single unit and managed to be fully expressive and create moments of intimacy, even with the limitations of the sound system.

This is followed by a series of pieces by lesser-known French composers of the early 20th century, taken from the group’s recent Cedille recording, including a charming trio by Henri Tomasi. Pederzoli’s solo in the nocturnal movement was clear and refined, and the rustic peasant dance in the third movement featured a luscious violin solo by Ruhstrat. An offbeat and ironic entertainment by Gustave Samazeuilh and a frenzied finale by Jean Cras that Pederzoli likens to the music of The Pirates of the Caribbean were also presented. Although these pieces are all obscure and often complex in texture, the trio’s engaging and committed performance made for engaging performances.

In the ensemble’s only contemporary selection, two movements by Chicago composer Marc Mellits Tapas concluded their set. These too were a crowd pleaser in their post-minimalist style. The Black Oak Ensemble seemed to have found the right place in its program to find out what types of contemporary classical music – and classical music in general – work in such an environment.

The Thirsty Ears Festival continues from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday. The suggested donation is $10.

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