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Group Efforts: art music for the masses

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For the last year flutist Claire Chase has been communicating by E-mail and cell phone with dozens of musicians across the country to hammer out the logistics for ICE Fest 2003, a six-concert series of new music that starts this Saturday. Presented by the International Contemporary Ensemble, a network of musicians and composers Chase cofounded, the series is intended, she says, to draw art music out of its "elitist bubble."

ICE has its origins in a project Chase undertook three years ago as a senior at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where she studied under flute virtuoso Michel Debost. Interested in music outside the standard repertoire, she sought out work by contemporary composers, but quickly discovered that there wasn't much available for her instrument. Driven to remedy the situation, she applied for and won a $5,000 grant from the Theodore Presser Foundation and used it to commission five composers--established names like Pauline Oliveros and Harvey Sollberger as well as young upstarts like Huang Ruo, a classmate--to write work for the flute.

She devoted herself full-time to the project for a year, and convinced others to participate as well. Determined to prove to people outside the world of contemporary classical music that what she and her friends were doing had popular appeal, she embarked on a PR campaign to fill the conservatory's 700-seat auditorium for a concert of the commissioned pieces that marked the end of the project. On the appointed night, the hall was standing-room only.

Moving to Chicago after graduation and wanting to keep the collaborative spirit of the Presser project alive, she contacted several former classmates, who by then had dispersed to Boston, New York City, and elsewhere, with the idea of forming a chamber music collective to champion the work of young performers and emerging composers. Huang, who's now getting his doctorate in composition at Juilliard, signed on as codirector.

ICE made its Chicago debut in January 2002 in a free concert at the Three Arts Club featuring music by J.S. Bach, John Cage, and Steve Reich as well as Chicago premieres of work by "icicles" Huang, Vincent Caliano, and David Reminick. The group mounted the first ICE Fest in June, staging three free concerts on a budget of about $7,000. The success of both ventures has only reinforced Chase's conviction that new-music presenters are working with a faulty model. "They think in terms of, say, the 1,000 or so who regularly go to new-music concerts in Chicago and give them what they want to hear," she says. "But I'm thinking of all those tiny theater companies in town that have been able to do good work and attract a following. Performances of new music should be stripped of pretensions and make listeners feel a connection."

To publicize ICE events, Chase relies on grassroots PR strategies, blanketing telephone poles and bulletin boards with flyers and talking to anyone who'll listen. "And the power of the Web is just amazing," she says. "We post notices in chat rooms and Web sites and mass E-mail. Many people--not the usual suspects--showed up as a result. And we got individual donations that way, even from music lovers in Hawaii." She's conducting a similar assault this year to get the word out about ICE Fest 2003.

"We have an even more eclectic mix," she says, pointing to a lineup that includes veteran composers like David Amram and Peter Maxwell Davies and young blood such as Mexican flutist, composer, and musicologist Wilfrido Terrazas. ICE's core members--clarinetist Campbell MacDonald, pianist Phyllis Chen, percussionist David Schotzko, and violinist David Bowlin, among others--staff all the concerts, working the door and moving music stands. The festival will also feature prominent local instrumentalists such as Yang Wei (pipa), Betty Xiang (erhu), the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Katinka Kleijn (cello), and Chase's current flute mentor, Mary Stolper. Almost all are working for far below scale.

Though Chase juggles an assortment of temp jobs--mostly music and catering gigs--to keep ICE going, she's happy with the progress so far.

"There's such a willingness to work incredibly hard," she says of her peers. "To search for our own answers, to bring work to life by emerging voices, and to do it in a way that connects with audiences of our time and not with the antiquated institutional audience that classical music has been buried under for the last 100 years.

"The end goal of ICE is to create a community and a place for people who believe in new music that passionately to work together and create the future together. We do believe that what we do is relevant and approachable and important and that it doesn't have to exist under a rock anymore."

ICE Fest 2003 starts Saturday, May 31, at 8 PM at the Columbia College Concert Hall, 1014 S. Michigan, with a free concert of work by George Crumb, featuring guest pianist Sebastian Huydts. The festival runs through June 8 at various venues. See the listings in Section Three, call 312-494-2655, or go to www.iceorg.org for more information.

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

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