Chicago classical music ensemble Dal Niente gets fierce

Jesse Langen

Guitarist Jesse Langen of Dal Niente. (May 21, 2013)

A couple of years ago Ensemble Dal Niente trumpeted its mission as presenting "the fiercest music of recent decades." The Chicago-based group of super-musicians still focuses on championing, commissioning and performing some of the most uncompromising scores being written today, but lately has been fine-tuning its modus operandi to bring a wider spectrum of listeners into the fold.

If that means creating more casual listening environments where listeners more closely attuned to, say, Kanye West or Lady Gaga than Gyorgy Kurtag or Helmut Lachenmann can get down with difficult contemporary music, so be it.

Which is why, when the Dal Niente musicians aren't playing residencies and festivals out of town – they're that in demand – they take their avant-gardish offerings to bars, clubs and alternative venues around town that are worlds removed from the high-culture corridor of Michigan Avenue. You won't find dead, white, European composers on those programs, but you will find bracing sonic adventures driven by some of the best new-music virtuosos around.

"I value our ability as an ensemble to take different performance spaces and create different experiences in them where people can engage with the music of our time," says Ryan Muncy, who doubles as Dal Niente's executive director and saxophonist. "Redefining the listening experience is for us the most important thing."

What, then, distinguishes Dal Niente from the numerous other excellent groups that are making Chicago the Midwest hub for the creation and performance of contemporary music?

The answer, says Muncy, lies in the group's dedication to creating what he calls "non-traditional musical atmospheres."

"Anything we can do to tear down the barriers that separate listeners from performers really helps audiences get past the complexities of much contemporary music," he explains. "We have found that audiences are not opposed to difficult musical content – in fact, they enjoy being pushed. What they seem to not like so much is having that done with all the protocol and decorum associated with the traditional concert experience."

The fact that Dal Niente has never known a fixed abode he regards as a plus, since this has led to the group's taking its musical wares to places where new and potentially willing ears may await.

"People feel less inhibited, more open to the unfamiliar, in places like that," Muncy observes. "For us that's been a good strategy for building our audience beyond the composers and musicians who will always be our biggest fans."

A Dal Niente concert I caught the other week at National Pastime Theater in Uptown proved how effectively Dal Niente can turn an evening of tough new music into a relaxed and enjoyable social event. A crowd of mostly young curiosity seekers sat at rapt attention through a program that pushed the needle of sonic experimentation into the red and beyond. They whooped with pleasure after each piece, and many stuck around to chat with the composers and performers before taking in a post-concert bluegrass jam.

You're not in Orchestra Hall anymore, Dorothy.

Founded in Chicago in 2004, Ensemble Dal Niente takes its name from dal niente, an Italian musical phrase often found in contemporary scores, meaning "from nothing." Although the group's core roster consists of about 10 musicians, the roster can comprise up to 25 players, depending on the pieces at hand.

There's hardly been a moment this season when Dal Niente wasn't going full tilt. Nine concerts introduced Chicago listeners to world, national and local premieres ranging from the epic (the Swiss-based Austrian spectralist composer Georg Friedrich Haas' "in vain") to the intimate (solo showcases such as the one Dal Niente members will present Wednesday night at the Empty Bottle club on the Near North Side).

For Dal Niente's Ravinia debut on July 4, the ensemble will pair a new chamber arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's "Songfest" with a song cycle by the late Elliott Carter. The group's 2013-14 season is to include the American premieres of works by France's Raphael Cendo and Germany's Johannes Kreidler, controversial composers who are virtually unknown in the U.S. but whose music will open the ears of local listeners, Muncy says.

Next year Dal Niente, ensemble in residence at Columbia College Chicago, will take up additional residencies at several major universities around the country before returning to Darmstadt, Germany, to participate in the 47th International Summer Courses for New Music, the famed international summit of contemporary composition and performance. In 2012 the Chicago group was awarded the festival's Kranichstein music prize – the first ensemble ever to receive that prestigious award. To Muncy it represents "the biggest turning point for the group thus far."

Since 2009, when the executive director began writing grant proposals for Dal Niente, he has seen its budget grow along with its personnel, audience and board. Operating expenses have increased from around $9,000 annually at the time he came aboard, to about $200,000 this season and more than $300,000 next season, the revenue fairly evenly split between earned and contributed income. Private foundations remain the not-for-profit's largest source of revenue.

"Our growing donor family has been really supportive, and that's allowed us to increase our programming and pay the artists more," Muncy reports.

The ensemble will have premiered more than 200 works by the end of the current season. Programming and personnel decisions are made at monthly meetings of an "artists' roundtable" of member musicians. Most players also job around with other area chamber groups, which helps to explain why a sense of camaraderie rather than competition prevails among these organizations.

Not unexpectedly, Dal Niente is continually bombarded by scores submitted by composers eager to receive the ensemble's seal of approval. "That's one way we come into contact with a lot of great, unknown composers," says Muncy. "Our staff and interns do a mind-blowing amount of research on their own. We try to keep our fingers on the pulse of new European music and what the cutting-edge groups over there are playing."

Looking ahead, he envisions Dal Niente's becoming "one of the key players on the world new music scene" while remaining "inseparable from Chicago culture and Chicago music."

Beyond that, Muncy sees ensemble members exercising "the extremes of their artistic vision" to an ever greater extent as time goes on.

"If one of our players comes up with an amazing idea that's ambitious and even far-fetched, we will try to make that happen. We regularly take risks with composers and projects – as a lot of new music groups do – but I want us to be able to do that more and more."

Guitarist Jesse Langen and soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett of Ensemble Dal Niente will present world premieres by Eliza Brown, Ray Evanoff, Chris Fisher-Lochhead, Marcos Balter and others as part of the (Un)familiar Music Series at 7 p.m. Wednesday at The Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave.; $15; dalniente.com.

Sharps and flats

"Aureole," a commissioned orchestral overture by former Chicago Symphony Orchestra resident composer Augusta Read Thomas, will have its world premiere by the DePaul University School of Music Orchestra, Cliff Colnot conducting, at 8 p.m. May 29 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony will follow. Tickets are $5; 312-294-3000, cso.org.

Quartet Lumiere, a Music Institute of Chicago Academy string quartet, won the first prize gold medal and a $2,300 scholarship in the junior division of the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, which was held earlier this month in South Bend, Ind. Student groups from the institute academy have taken first place in the Fischoff junior division for five of the last six years.

jvonrhein@tribune.com | Twitter @jvonrhein

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