A new classical ensemble in Bloomington-Normal isn't waiting for their big break. They're breaking into the business on their own power, armed with energy, passion, and some talented friends.
It all started with a conversation over dinner, said violist Douglas Temples. The group of friends were music students, either about to graduate or recently graduated from Illinois State University. They lamented the fact that they seldom had a chance to play chamber music together. So they took control of the situation and created their own chances.
"We decided to put on a concert. We chose Tchaikovsky's 'Souvenir de Florence.' And we were thinking about what sort of name we could come up with for the ensemble.”
Temples said the group zeroed in on the many famous classical collaborations of big-name artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, where the artist invites other musicians to join in—resulting in Yo-Yo Ma ... and Friends.
“And we were like, 'None of us are famous concert musicians, so we’ll just be ...and friends.’ We thought it was a cute name and it just kind of stuck,” Temples explained with a grin.
The purpose of “...and friends” is not just to play music with one another, said Aaron Gomez. He plays cello with the ensemble and is also their resident composer. The ensemble wants to include other young musicians and spotlight their talents.
“We reach out to other artists who are sometimes at this university, sometimes from the city or around Illinois, and they collaborate with us in concerts.”
The next concert for “...and friends” is Sunday, May 12, at 2 p.m. in the University Galleries in Uptown Normal. The group invited vocalist Rachel Miller to perform some songs by Brahms, as well as included pianist Brian Hinkley for a work by Poulenc.
“We are reaching out and trying to have the group grow,” said Gomez. “Not just audiencewise, but ensemblewise. So we really want to bring in other musicians to collaborate.”
Although Bloomington-Normal can boast of a local symphony (Illinois Symphony Orchestra) and opera company (MIO), Gomez noted that the “...and friends” ensemble is filling the void for a chamber group.
There’s a visceral quality to chamber music that local listeners can appreciate, cellist Christine Cicha observed.
“We see a lot of the large orchestral works on stage and it’s great to have that and really get enveloped in the sound. But there’s such a different and more intimate atmosphere when it comes to chamber music. It’s great for us as a performer because get to really interact with our other musicians, but also get to really engage the audience, bring them in and allow them into this little more private world.”
The first “...and friends” season focused on the Romantic era, but they hope to branch out in upcoming seasons.
“The only new music we’ve done on the program is my own music,” said Gomez. “I’m the resident composer for the group. But we have had discussions about really opening up the spectrum and having concerts that feature early music and concerts that feature more contemporary music. I think it’s important for the community, as well as the players, to be experiencing the entire musical spectrum. Because all music was once new, and new music needs its presence and it needs its representatives, as well. As a composer, I’m lucky enough to have friends that play my music. Not all contemporary composers are that lucky.”
Selling new music to a wary audience entails having a hook, Gomez explained. That is, pairing a new work with a classic that many will recognize.
“That way they’ll come and they’ll hear both, even if they only come for one. At least they’ll be exposed to the second. That way we’ll start making this connection with the community.”
In their final concert of their inaugural season, Temples said “...and friends” is featuring Mendelssohn’s String Octet. “It’s one of the big chamber works from the Romantic era. We’re all excited to do it. It’s one of those bucket list pieces that you want to do at least once.”
The ensemble is also featuring a new work by Irish composer, Brian Ingoldsby. Whimsically entitled “A quart of beer and a pint of insouciance.” According to the composer, the title means nothing at all, revealed Cicha.
“It’s really cool and kind of jazzy. We reached out to the composer and the ensemble that premiered it and they sent us all the parts. The composer is very excited that it’s getting a second performance.”
The concert is Sunday, May 12, at 2 p.m. at the University Galleries in Uptown Normal, rounding out the first season of “...and friends.” Over the summer, the ensemble hopes to hold a composition competition, inviting up-and-coming composers to submit their work for consideration. The winner’s work will be performed and recorded in the next season of “...and friends.”
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