Stories of courage and a fighting spirit told through classical music on period instruments in a Jazz club in Chicago?? Couldn’t happen! Oh, but it is happening this October 14th and 15th with the premiere of Chicago Stories at the Green Mill and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
As programs like Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle (MITJ) bring a renewed interest in the classical genre to a non-traditional audience, what many think of as “old” is suddenly new and fresh again. And Chicago has its own brand of MITJ in the Bach + Beethoven Ensemble (BBE).
An experiential endeavor that began in 2009, violinist/fiddler and founder, Brandi Berry Benson took a leap of faith, and brought together a cohort of classical musicians who wanted to make Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and hundreds of long-dead classical composers rock! Since then, they have been attracting audiences — from millennials to baby boomers — with their take on classical and early music that defies how the genre is typically represented. With the BBE, there are no tails, no formal concert hall, no baton, no quiet and no patrons snoozing in the upper balcony.
“Did you ever stop to think that in their times, Bach and Beethoven were creating new music?” asks BBE Founder and Artistic Director, Brandi Berry Benson.
“Not a soul had ever heard anything like Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Beethoven’s nine symphonies before they were given to an ensemble to play for an audience. They were at the cutting edge, thinking of new ways to use their instruments, tell a story, revamp the concert as an event, and most importantly, engage the audience at a whole new level.
“They were the ‘Beyonce’ of their times. They were experimenting – stretching the capabilities of both instruments and musicians. We decided to follow the example of
our heroes and namesakes by creating an experience that makes sure their music, and many others remain relevant to today’s eclectic music audience,” Mrs. Berry Benson concludes.
And that, in essence, is what BBE intends to achieve with their latest collaboration: Chicago Stories.
Chicago: A City of Stories
Bringing together composers, writers, and musicians with community heroes, Chicago Stories weaves together music and vocals in six original compositions that expose the underbelly of the cultures, customs, and creativity that fuels this historically diverse city of sanctuary and hope.
Through Chicago Stories, the audience learns about the Alvarez Brothers and their renaissance efforts to revive the Pilsen Latin Jazz scene. They then take a journey through the harrowing escape from the war-torn Middle East of members of the Assyrian immigrant community, who finally found refuge in the neighborhoods of Rogers Park and Lincolnwood. Finally, the audience scales the wall along with a group of minority women in executive leadership roles who crushed their glass ceilings to reach the top of the mountain in their chosen careers.
“Earlier this year, we asked three of Chicago’s next generation composers to each create two new works about Chicagoans and a neighborhood or community to which they felt connected or wanted to explore further. We turned them loose to do it in whatever ways would inspire their best creativity, asking only that they use Chicago and Chicagoans as their libretto. They met, they interviewed, they laughed, they cried, and in the end, their compositions and the stories they tell paint a picture of an emerging Chicago, which embraces the future and inspires hope for its residents and those yet to arrive,” says BBE Executive Director, Thomas Alaan.
The three Chicago-based composers, Amos Gillespie, Heidi Joosten and Eric Malmquist, bring their own blend of classical and modern music, along with their involvement in Chicago life, to paint a picture for the audience of their subjects. To undertake such a project is often a labor of love that is as revealing about the composers, as it is about their subjects.
“Music is an expression of the soul,” says Jamie Alvarez, one of four brothers with whom composer Amos Gillespie worked to create his new music about the Latin Jazz scene in the Pilsen neighborhood. “It liberates us. Musica de Las Americas, our music, links us to our past and to our predecessors. Our souls are rich in culture and tradition, and we want to send the message to everyone - to the present generation, to Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike - to maintain a cultural identity and to carry it with pride.”
To listen to others and their experiences – to share in their troubles and their triumphs — gives one something about which to think. In the wake of so much cultural and political upheaval in the country today, the composers found that it's refreshing just to listen and discover what lies beyond the surface.
“It was fantastic to learn about the experiences of my Assyrian friends and neighbors. They fled their country in terror as refugees but they are now an indelible part of Chicago and our nation –they are forever changed by their journey and so are we,” says composer Eric Malmquist.
Fellow composer Heidi Joosten found her exploration of a group of women executives an eye-opening experience of how one individual can bring change that benefits many.
“Working on the Chicago Stories project has given me the opportunity to explore and understand "impact" deeply. The brilliant and inspirational women that I interviewed worked tirelessly to make the lives of the people in their communities better – people who, more often than not, are at the mercy of the political game. Throughout the history of music, women have had to work inside the institutions established by white men in power. And, similarly, these women that I interviewed, have created beauty in the face of adversity, making an impact for future generations,” explained Ms. Joosten.
Chicago Stories, like all of the BBE’s programming, dares to express what its namesakes Bach and Beethoven demanded of themselves, respectively – to strive for the ideal and push the boundaries beyond the limits of possibility.
As Ellen Hargis, artistic co-director of Chicago's Newberry Consort says, "BBE is taking a fresh approach to classical programming, with creative and sometimes audacious projects that push the envelope. Judging by the public response, it's working! By exploring new works, new venues, and using new ways of hearing, they are attracting a young, curious audience for traditional repertoires, as well.”
Chicago Stories premieres on Friday, October 14, 7:00 pm at the University of Illinois, East Terrace, UIC Student Center East, and Saturday, October 15, 3:00 pm at The Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway. Advance tickets for the UIC performance at http:// chicagostories.brownpapertickets.com
Meet the musicians and learn more about Chicago Stories at http:// www.bbensemble.org/chicagostories/