Is Anybody Listening?

Modern music has never been an easy sell in this town: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been trying to drum up interest in the modern canon for years, serving its audience a 20th-century piece like a plate of broccoli and then rewarding it with a Romantic piece for dessert. Now Chicago Chamber Musicians, many of whose members also belong to the CSO, is embarking on a three-year program to enlarge the audience for modern music. “Music at the Millennium” consists of a dozen concerts over the next three years, to be given at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new 300-seat theater.

The series will present modern chamber music from a broad sampling of composers, including Shostakovich, Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ives. “We expect to include at least one composition from each decade of the 20th century,” explains CCM artistic director Michael Henoch, the principal organizer of the series. In addition CCM is commissioning new works for the first time in its 14-year history. This year the group will perform compositions by Richard Wilson of Vassar College and Sebastian Huydts of Northwestern University.

Such ambitious programming doesn’t come cheap: Henoch says the series will cost approximately $500,000. CCM’s annual operating budget is only $600,000. But the group has already demonstrated its business savvy by nabbing a $90,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust and a $100,000 special grant from the beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts, one of only 29 given out nationally for millennium projects. CCM is the only Chicago group among the 29 recipients, which include such prestigious organizations as the American Ballet Theatre, the Boys Choir of Harlem, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the New York Shakespeare Festival. But unlike many of these organizations, which tour the country or focus on a national audience, CCM has aimed its program at the Chicago market; apparently the NEA believes “Music at the Millennium” will serve as a prototype for other organizations hoping to develop audiences for modern music. In a letter to CCM board president Nicholas Weingarten announcing the grant, NEA senior deputy chair Scott Shanklin-Peterson wrote, “This joint project with the Museum of Contemporary Art will greatly enhance the public’s understanding of modern musical creativity and its association with the evolution of 20th-century art.”

Henoch admits that modern music has never been especially popular, but he’s sure CCM can make the series an artistic success that will sell out the MCA’s theater: “At 300 seats, we will do very well.” The museum offers a potential synergy between modern art and music, not to mention a healthy mailing list that CCM can mine for ticket buyers. The chamber music group has a loyal audience of its own, with 1,020 current subscribers and an impressive renewal rate of 85 percent. The programs will consist mostly of short, varied works in order to draw diverse crowds. And CCM is bringing in some high-powered talent: the first concert, on May 3, will feature conductor Pierre Boulez, one of the CSO’s most potent weapons in building an audience for modern music. Says Henoch, “People respond to Boulez.”

Rag Time

The new musical Ragtime, directed by Chicago’s Frank Galati, isn’t scheduled to open here until October, but all eyes are on the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in New York to see how the show fares in the months ahead. The $10 million musical, produced by Canadian Garth Drabinsky and based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, has been praised by critics in Toronto and Los Angeles, but last week the production was dealt a pair of sharp blows by the New York Times. In a lengthy review, the Times’s first-string drama critic, Ben Brantley, came down hard on the show, calling it “utterly resistible.” Then in the Sunday edition Vincent Canby wrote, “The collaborators seem to have constructed Ragtime much like the theater in which it is now playing: with efficiency and a good deal of money, but not with the kind of style that would establish its own urgent identity.” Other New York newspapers were kinder; the New York Post called Ragtime “irresistible,” while the Daily News hailed it as “a brilliant work of musical storytelling.” Sources in New York say that word of mouth, always important in determining a show’s success, has been equally effusive.

Drabinsky, whose newly restored Oriental Theater/Ford Center will host the show’s Chicago run, may need a long-running hit on Broadway. The LA production, which opened last July, has played to considerably less than full houses in recent weeks and will close in April after only nine months. In Toronto, where it debuted, Drabinsky kept the show running for about as long; a source familiar with the production said it did “good but not great” business. On the eve of Ragtime’s Broadway debut the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, ran a front-page story suggesting that the fortunes of Drabinsky’s production organization, Livent Inc., rest on the fate of Ragtime. After the Times weighed in, publicly traded Livent stock fell on both the Canadian stock exchange and the NASDAQ. But a Livent spokesman insists that Ragtime’s prospects in New York remain bright and claims the show sold $2.3 million worth of tickets the day after the opening, bringing the total advance sales to $17.5 million.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael Menoch photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.