Ensemble d'Accord was founded six years ago in an Oak Park living room. Pianist Mary Ann Krupa Stickler says, "We were originally a trio--flute, oboe, and piano--of women who'd gone to American Conservatory together. Two of us were married and had very small children, and we were not playing anymore because children take up too much time. The oboist was doing symphonic work and missed doing the small stuff. We got together just to play, just to remind ourselves that we were still musicians, just to keep up our skills. Then we started doing small jobs, like wedding receptions. We decided to do a 'big concert,' just for fun. Then things just sort of ballooned."
Krupa (a distant cousin of Gene Krupa), is a tiny woman, wiry and wired, who gets a big sound from her piano; her bright blue eyes dominate her face, and her words--frequently self-deprecating--tumble out allegro staccatissimo in a Chicago accent you could cut with a knife. She and clarinetist Ruth Rhodes, who lives in Beverly and plays with the Northwest Indiana Symphony, have been the heart of Ensemble d'Accord.
For their big concert at the American Conservatory, the trio added Rhodes, a bassoonist, and a French horn. Eventually they became part of the respected Unity Temple concert series. "Some of it was because we really were good, we really did play well, they liked our choice of music," Krupa says. "And some of it was that we were all women--'Oh, isn't that neat!' We're personable, we talk to the audience--we've always done repertory that the audience was not familiar with, so we talk about it. It made us quite unique."
Then came a long series of personnel changes. Rhodes and Krupa looked around and found another oboist, another bassoonist, another flutist. They added a cellist and a violinist, and because they had such a variety of instruments began performing repertory that other chamber groups in the city couldn't do.
"Our rehearsals used to be hysterical because of the kids," Krupa recalls. "When Carla [Krupa's daughter, now six] was a year and a half old, she'd be there in her walker all during the rehearsal. We'd have a box of Cheerios at the piano, and we'd keep throwing Cheerios to her just to get through a movement. Sometimes we'd have screaming kids. And when they'd get a little bigger, they'd want to sit at the piano with you, they'd want to help. We used to have to bring a baby-sitter to the concert to watch the kids--between three women, we had seven of them."
Their success was not only unexpected but something of a mixed blessing. "It was bad in the sense that we just fell into it--we struggled to find enough rehearsal time. We didn't have a flier, we didn't have a picture." At first they performed for free to establish themselves, but that never works out for long, and paying six musicians is expensive. Krupa says, "Trying to find rehearsal time was getting ridiculous, because everyone was in a symphony, teaching, playing in other chamber groups. You have to spend time rehearsing, not just learning the music but finding your own unique sound." For a long time, Rhodes and Krupa paid the other musicians while working for nothing themselves; they dug into their own pockets to meet expenses.
"We reached a crisis point where we had to decide: do we want to go on? We realized we had to. We registered our name, we've gone for nonprofit status, and we've developed a concert series. We decided we had to take ourselves seriously, because nobody else would if we didn't."
In five years, the group has gone through four violinists, three bassoonists, four flutists, and three cellists. They have also gone equal opportunity: with bassoonist Alan Palidor and violinist Fred Sin-Yi Chou (former concertmaster at the Opera Theater of Beijing and current concertmaster of the Northwest Indiana Symphony), the present ensemble is one-third male. Oboist Christine Janzow and cellist Susan Ross complete the roster,
When hiring new people, the ensemble looks at rehearsal techniques, among other things. "There are different ways of looking at music. We look at things from several ways and see what works, Some people just won't do that--'This is the way I play this piece,' and that's it.
"The personality thing got to be real tough--some of them were not married and had no children, and had a real hard time coping with having kids around. We try to rehearse late at night now and send the kids up to bed--my kids can sleep through anything, Hindemith, Brahms--but we couldnt get rid of them all the time. So we ended up with people who are not bothered by kids." There is something about the sound of the oboe, Krupa reports, that makes small children cry.
"We have no conductor to tell us how to do things. It's a democratic procedure, and some people dont like it that way. There's a lot of give-and-take--I'll do this piece faster if you'll do that piece slower.' Everyone approaches music from the point of view of their own instrument. You have to look at the good of the piece, and not necessarily from the point of view of your own preference."
When asked how they pick their repertoire, Krupa responds, "With great difficulty. We look at the six instruments we use; we go through the repertory we own, catalogs, records; we talk to our teachers. Sometimes it's stuff no one has ever heard. That can be a problem, because you can't take [music home with you] to look it over: we bought a 20th-century piece and paid a fortune for it, took it home and read it over--and it was the biggest piece of garbage! And we now own it! What do we do with it?" While they play everything from Handel to contemporary composer Michael Head, they generally avoid the Baroque. "There are too many groups in the area that specialize in it, that do it with original instruments."
Actually, all six members of the Ensemble rarely play together, because little music is written for sextet; the largest aggregation commonly found is the quintet. "We want to balance the program so everyone gets a chance to play. If we do a series, it's much easier--we can spotlight one instrument at one concert, another at another."
The program for their spring concert on April 30 is typically diverse. Krupa says it's "not heavy--there's no angst on this program whatever": a Mozart sonata, one work by Schumann--"some of his best chamber music, and he didnt write much"--a Poulenc sonata for oboe and piano, two pathetiques by Mikhail Glinka for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, and the Bohuslav Martinu Quator for oboe, violin, cello, and piano. Martinu, who composed the piece in 1947, is "known for his sense of humor--and it's all over the piece," Krupa says. "It's bright, witty, and fun."
Bright, witty, and fun is in fact a fair description of the typical Ensemble d'Accord concert. The members' intelligent commentary and their generally superb playing make their concerts something more than the usual stuffy chamber-music affair. WFMT recently booked them for the 1990 series of the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts.
Ensemble d'Accord will perform Sunday, April 30, at 3 PM at Trinity United Methodist Church, 9848 S. Winchester. Tickets are $8 and available at the door. Call 233-1258 for information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.