When Chamber Music Chicago executive director Susan Lipman took over its administrative helm in 1982, she knew she had a challenge on her hands. “The organization, quite frankly, was dying,” she says. Today the subscriber base is close to 1,000, and there are 11 concerts in the group’s 30th-anniversary series this year.

Lipman had been a supporter of the presenting group, dedicated to bringing the best of chamber music to Chicago, and was looking for a change in her life: “The idea of taking on something new appealed to me. But I also did not want to see the organization go under, and I really wanted there to be quality chamber music in this city.”

But though Lipman had excellent organizational skills and had been involved with arts planning in one way or another for most of her life, she had little experience in the business end. “I said no when the job was first offered, precisely because at that time I was the kind of person who didn’t even balance my own checkbook. I figured, ‘Let the bank worry about that, that’s what I’m paying them for.'” But with the help of a friend, who spent an entire summer teaching her how to balance books and read financial statements, and some later courses at Northwestern’s business school, Lipman was on her way.

One of her first changes was to the name. Chamber Music Chicago was chosen because it suggested an organization that would serve all chamber-music enthusiasts in Chicago. Lipman admits that, for a different reason, “Our name is still an issue for us. ‘Chamber music’ can suggest a certain, often unflattering image to those not familiar with its glorious tradition. And chamber-music people can sometimes be so stodgy and exclusionary, setting up barriers that simply don’t need to exist. Anyone can come in and be deeply moved by the music, so why do we have to use a language that says we’re dealing with only a special, limited audience that appreciates it?

“Sometimes I think that as long as we keep our name, there’s only so far we can go, simply because there are too many barriers in what the name suggests to fully broaden our horizons. But then again, the other side is that chamber music is such an exquisite art form with such a rich history; do we retreat over semantics, or do we work to rescue its label and image?”

Lipman shows no signs of retreating, and in fact she’s known for taking chances. When she first started, she says, she had a broad knowledge of standard chamber music and lieder, because those were the musical forms she most enjoyed. But when she found herself responsible for planning seasons, she started to try to develop a broad-based, diversified audience for chamber music. “I have to think about any possible roadblocks to that. I care very much that I live in a city with large black and Hispanic populations; we should and we will begin to explore their music and their composers.

“I’m also struck by the huge young audience out there that go out to hear live music every week. I’m not talking the Rosemont Horizon; I mean clubs where there’s an audience of 200 to 600 people on a given night. That’s a committed audience that I’m interested in.” And that’s why she created the DejAvant series, “so we could do more exploratory kinds of works and go off in nontraditional directions that I didn’t think belonged on our chamber-music series.” The DejAvant concerts, which will begin in the spring, will be announced in several weeks.

“We can enhance our own musical lives,” Lipman says, “if we allow a cross-fertilization with other cultures and art forms. Chamber Music Chicago has done that with jazz, and we will continue to, and you’ll see us starting to do it very soon with folk music and dance as well–anything that can provide us with an opportunity for a new level of understanding and a new way to enjoy a small instrumental ensemble. Even rock can be included when it’s exploratory and substantive; anything is possible.”

When asked about traditional chamber music and its performance, Lipman is wary: “This country is producing more musicians than ever before, and a lot of them are enormously skilled in terms of technique. I’m looking for something that goes way beyond a technical skill–people who have their own voice and their own commitment to personal growth. Yes, the music must be heard, but it’s also a question of the right musicians to perform it. Every one of the individuals and ensembles on our upcoming season have a very strong relationship with music, and they each engage in a questioning process which digs deeply into the music that they play.”

One such performer is American flutist Carol Wincenc, who will present a CMC recital this week, accompanied on piano by composers Lukas Foss, David Del Tredici, Paul Schoenfield, and Peter Schickele (aka P.D.Q. Bach). “The program is called ‘The American Flute Project,'” says Lipman, “because it consists entirely of American works, including seven Chicago premieres. Most of the pieces were either written or arranged for Wincenc, and audience members will have the unique opportunity to hear four of the composers accompany Wincenc in their own music.” Another risky CMC venture, but then again, observes Lipman, “if we’re not generous enough to permit these new experiences, and instead maintain preordained or artificial barriers, chamber music will remain a small art form understood and enjoyed by few.”

Chamber Music Chicago will continue its 30th-anniversary season with Carol Wincenc and Friends in Concert: The American Flute Project on Monday, January 8, at 8 PM in Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan. Composers Foss, Del Tredici, and Schickele will present a panel discussion on composing for particular performers in the ballroom after the concert, while audience members enjoy free birthday cheesecake. Call 663-1628 or 242-6237 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.