It's heartening when a musical organization that's central to the city emerges from a fiscal crisis in stronger shape than before. Such an organization is the weekly Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts series, the most valuable freebie in downtown Chicago music this side of the Grant Park Music Festival.
The series of admission-free recitals by young, gifted, mostly unknown artists has suffered a string of funding crises over the years but is going into its 35th anniversary celebration as one of the indispensables of the downtown classical music scene.
Concerts take place at noon Wednesdays, 52 weeks a year, under the beautiful Tiffany dome of Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center. The series, created by the late Chicago real estate man Al Booth, is named after the patrician British pianist who organized daily concerts at London's National Gallery to help keep the city's musical life and morale alive during World War II.
Such is the loyal following the series has built that Preston Bradley's 450 seats are invariably filled for every concert. That comes out to more than 23,000 audience members a year, an impressive turnout for live classical music. These listeners know there are few better places around to spot talent on the way up. Talent like pianists Barry Douglas and Daniil Trifonov, soprano June Anderson and violinist Nigel Kennedy, all of whom went on to world prominence after making their debuts here.
"We are a fixture – a kind of embedded part of the Chicago musical scene," declares Ann Murray, executive director of the International Music Foundation, which produces the Hess concerts.
After presenting nearly 1,800 performances, the Hess series will celebrate its 35th birthday Sept. 26 by bringing back two established artists who enjoy close links to the series.
Alex Klein, former principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Richard Young, violist of the now-disbanded Vermeer Quartet, will be joined by Chicago pianist Kuang-Hao Huang for a program of chamber works drawn from Klein and Young's Cedille CD, "Poetic Inspirations." The concert, like all the others in the Hess series, is being broadcast live by WFMT FM 98.7.
The International Music Foundation was dealt a severe blow in 2009 when, amid the general economic crisis, the series' major sponsor, Bank of America, pulled out. But the plucky Murray was not prepared to accept its possible demise, any more than Booth was prepared to do so two decades earlier following another significant loss of corporate funding.
So the executive director went stumping for new sponsorship that would, she hoped, amount to more than another stopgap. Doing so involved a lot of banging on foundation and private doors, but eventually she found it.
The result, she says, is that the Hess series is now in "very stable shape, resting on a very comfortable cushion" of funding from a variety of sources, including the Peggy & Steve Fossett Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation and an anonymous family foundation.
Donations have caught up with reputation.
What gratifies her the most, Murray says, is the $10,000-$11,000 in contributions the concerts receives each year from her own audience members. "Ten years ago our private donations stood at zero. But in the last couple of years our listeners have really shown their support for the series, not just by showing up week in and week out, but also by making individual contributions. It's fabulous!"
For Murray, the most poignant Hess event on her watch was the concert of Sept. 12, 2001, performed by Chicago keyboardist David Schrader.
"The singer scheduled to appear couldn't make it because of the World Trade Center attacks, and David stepped in at the last moment," she recalls. "The audience that day wanted to be with other people. Beyond that, they didn't quite know what they wanted; none of us did immediately after 9/11. David's performance gave them a place to be together and a shared emotional outlet."
Besides an extensive series of in-school music programs, the foundation also is responsible for putting on the annual "Do-it-Yourself Messiah" performances, a Chicago holiday tradition since 1976. At the moment, funding is a bit dicier for that beloved institution. Most of the sponsorship ($75,000) is in place for this year's presentation – Dec. 17 and 18 in the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park – but Murray is still waiting on $30,000 from an outside source.
Is she optimistic Santa will arrive before the $10 tickets for the popular audience-sing-along concerts go on sale Nov. 15?
"I have to be," she replies, firmly.
The Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts series continues at 12:15 p.m. Wednesdays at Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Admission is free; 312-670-6888, imfchicago.org.
Beethoven Festival finale
I regret having to miss the closing event of the International Beethoven Project's Beethoven Festival: Revolution 2012 on Sunday at the National Pastime Theater in the Uptown neighborhood, but have heard only good reports. The concert, conducted by German composer Matthias Pintscher, included a performance of the composer's "Eroica" Symphony, the thematic and philosophical hub of this year's festival.
Earlier in the afternoon, I caught the premieres of 18 new solo piano bagatelles by living American and Canadian composers, based on deconstructed bits and pieces from the Third Symphony. The project, organized by Chicago composer Mischa Zupko, turned up fewer winners than the inaugural edition did last year. Still, it was good to see more people in attendance than had been the case for earlier festival events. Once again an excited communal vibe lifted the event beyond itself.
All of the pieces had been composed on tight deadline. A kind of gray, anonymous atonalism informed some of them. Pieces by Mikolaj Gorecki, Michael Johanson, Randall Woolf and Anthony Molinaro had things to say, and said them well. The most absorbing was a James Matheson bagatelle enlisting all six participating pianists – James Giles, Matt Hagle, George Lepauw, Daniel Schlosberg, Molinaro and Zupko. The piece alternated material from the final movement of the "Eroica" with spectral and torrential washes of sound – think Franz Liszt playing Beethoven on hallucinogens.
Since the reading nearly resulted in a train wreck because an iPad belong to one of the performers crashed ("We murdered it," Zupko confessed to the audience), the piece was repeated. Everyone, including the composer, looked relieved. Beethoven Fest 2 was wildly ambitious, overprogrammed, uneven but full of wonderful discoveries, including major artists Chicago deserved to hear, such as clarinetist Julian Bliss, violinist Rachel Kolly d'Alba and pianist HJ Lim. I can't wait for next year's edition.