A welcome return to live music, courtesy of Evanston Chamber Festival

Mon Aug 31, 2020 at 1:17 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Musicians performed on the porch of the Charles G. Dawes House Sunday night in Evanston. Photo: Victor Asuncion

We all have fantasies of post-pandemic life.

Ardent Cubs fans picture themselves back at Wrigley Field.  Some of us dream of rollicking dinners at noisy, jam-packed restaurants. Others recall the joys of watching real, live performers on a real, live stage.

Over the weekend in Evanston, chamber music lovers traveled back to that longed-for future at outdoor performances at an historic lakefront mansion. Billed as the Evanston Chamber Music Festival, the series features top-flight string players in intriguing programs. The final concert is tonight.

On a certain level, the festival is simply the brainchild of a few musician friends getting together to put on a show. Victor Asuncion, a Filipino-American pianist based in Chicago, lined up area players who were sheltering in place. The lead sponsor is the FilAm Music Foundation, devoted to nurturing young Filipino-American classical musicians. But Asuncion’s musician friends included Chicago Symphony Orchestra members, Frank Almond, long-time concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony, and an assortment of gifted freelancers. These shows were bound to be good.

At Sunday night’s performance, Covid-19 wasn’t entirely forgotten. Everyone, including the musicians—violinists Brian Hong and Rannveig Marta Sarc and cellists Alexander Hersh and Ezra Escobar—wore masks. The audience of about 35 sat in widely spaced chairs on the mansion’s rear lawn, and temperatures were taken at check-in. But the atmosphere was relaxed and quietly festive. Both audience and players gratefully basked in the pleasure of finally being in one another’s company after more than five months of pandemic-induced isolation.

The program, which ranged from Corelli to Augusta Read Thomas, was full of emotional heft and virtuoso demands. But it also had an endearing light-hearted undercurrent. Hong and Sarc (who recently married) teamed up for a gleeful bit of off-kilter fiddling in Homage to Anonymous Ancient Fiddlers, a 2015 work by Korean-American composer Texu Kim. After Hong purposely tuned his violin a quarter-note below Sarc’s, the pair dug into the fast-paced piece. Swooping and swinging, they played its slightly off-pitch melodies with the good cheer of country musicians at a Saturday night hoedown. A few melodies sounded vaguely familiar but with an amiably tart bit of dissonance.

Photo: Victor Asuncion

Works for two violins and cello by Corelli and Giovanni Battista Viotti, an 18th century violin virtuoso, presented a more elegant veneer in a similarly engaging vein. In the final movement of Viotti’s String Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 19, No. 1, Sarc’s playful violin ignited a merry chase, set against Hong’s full-throated responses and Hersh’s steady cello line.

In the more somber works, the musicians revealed an emotional depth that comes from performers who know each other well and care deeply about the music they play.

Following the cheerful Homage to Anonymous Ancient Fiddlers with Silent Moon, a meditative piece by Augusta Read Thomas, offered a bracing contrast. Written in 2006 for violin and cello, the piece is a musical portrait of a clear, wintery night. But in Thomas’s vision, the moon, so often portrayed by a silvery, crystalline violin line, seems to reside in the cello. Sending out long-held, sometimes grainy low notes, Hersh’s cello was a constant reassuring presence. Sarc’s rounded violin lines floated slowly, shifting shapes like clouds, sometimes blending with Hersh’s glowing cello, sometimes drifting away, solitary and thoughtful, into the deep winter night.

Hong and Hersh shared a similarly attentive connection in Kodaly’s demanding Duo, Op. 7, for Violin and Cello. Hersh’s mellow yet rich cello and Hong’s commanding violin were an excellent match, and they fully explored the music’s despairing depths and dark, sometimes rhapsodic flights.

Escobar, a gifted Filipino-American cellist, was a vibrant soloist in four selections from Seven Tunes Heard in China by Bright Sheng. He is an expressive musician, capable of etching the air with eerie, hushed melodies.  But in the final “Tibetan Dance” he played with a obsessive drive of a possessed soul.

There were the usual outdoor-concert distractions Sunday night: low-flying aircraft, cicadas in full-throated frenzy. But the setting, the rear porch of the Charles G. Dawes House, proved to be a fine idea. The back wall and overhang of the shallow porch formed a kind of acoustic shell, allowing the audience to clearly hear every note.

It may still be months before we return to concert going as usual, whatever usual may turn out to be. But Sunday’s performance was a timely reminder: In music, there is nothing like the real, live thing.

The Evanston Chamber Music Festival closes 7 p.m. tonight with music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Dohnanyi.




CSO strings & friends ready for Evanston Chamber Music Festival

Catherine Brubaker, a viola in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has missed performing with her musical colleagues during the COVID-19 hiatus. So when pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion called and asked her to play outdoors in the Evanston Chamber Music Festival, she jumped at the chance.

“Everybody is really anxious to get out there and perform in some capacity,” Brubaker said. “Of course, we would love to be back onstage at the hall [in Symphony Center], even if it were just recorded live-streaming or something. But anything will feel good.”

This first installment of the festival is an extension of the Evanston Chamber Music Society, which began presenting an annual series of six or seven indoor concerts two years ago. “It was really born out of the fact that I was missing live music,” Asuncion said. When COVID-19 restrictions were eased to allow for regulated outdoor concerts, he reached out to the Evanston History Center, which is housed in the landmark Charles Gates Dawes House, 225 Greenwood St., in the suburb, and its leadership agreed to allow him to organize a trio of concerts on its east terrace.

The Evanston chamber music performances will occur at 7 p.m. Aug. 28 and 30-31, and the maximum number of performers and audience members at each concert will be capped at 50. All attendees will be required to wear masks and sit in socially distanced fashion; attendees’ temperatures will be taken at the entrance. Tickets are available in advance ( or they can be purchased at the door: $40 per concert or $100 for all three. For anyone not willing or able to venture out, the concerts will be streamed live on Facebook.

To avoid Chicago’s out-of-state quarantine protocols, Asuncion invited performers who are mostly local musicians and visiting artists now in the Chicago area for other reasons. “We won’t have to worry about people traveling in,” Asuncion said. Among the 10 featured participants are four CSO musicians — Brubaker as well as cello Karen Basrak, viola Lawrence Neuman and violin Qing Hou. “Cathy is practically my neighbor here in Evanston,” Asuncion said.

Headlining the opening Aug. 28 concert will be Frank Almond, who stepped down at the end of the 2019-20 season as concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony. He gained unexpected fame in 2014 when his 1715 Lipiński Stradivarius violin was stolen during an armed robbery after a concert. The theft, which made international headlines, was the subject of a documentary that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019. “He’s a really good friend, and we’ve done some recordings in the last couple of years, and I thought he would be a draw,” Asuncion said. He will appear with Madeleine Kabat, the Milwaukee Symphony’s acting assistant principal cellist, in a series of duos. Among the works will be the Duo for Violin and Cello (1932) by Erwin Schulhoff, an under-appreciated Czech composer who died in a German concentration camp in 1942.

The CSO musicians will be heard on the third and final program on Aug. 31. Hou, Neuman and their son, Maurice Neuman, a 14-year-old cellist, will team for several works for string trio, including Beethoven’s Serenade in D Major, Op. 8. Because of the challenges of rehearsing during a pandemic, Basrak and Brubaker will be performing solo works, which the two were able to prepare on their own.

Basrak will be performing J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, earlier on the first half, so Brubaker wanted to find something different to complement it. “I was thinking: What can I do that is solo viola that is not going to sound like a Bach suite?” she said. “There are other solo suites and things like that, but they all take after the style. It’s all going to sound sort of the same.” She searched on YouTube and elsewhere and discovered three viola transcriptions of Spanish guitar pieces by Francisco Tarrega and Julio Salvador Sagreras. “That’s been very challenging for me, because there are a lot of technical things we don’t do in orchestra.”

A prime example is the double stop — playing two notes at once on a stringed instrument. Although soloists frequently employ this technique, Brubaker rarely does it as an orchestral player, because the notes are simply divided among the musicians in the section. “So to go back and be able to play multiple notes together in tune is hard if you haven’t been doing it for a while,” she said. Other showy effects in these works include left-hand pizzicatos imitating the Spanish guitar.

“They’re short pieces,” she said. “I’m playing about 10 minutes of music, but for me, that’s been a big challenge. So, that’s really what I have been doing musically every day and then practicing whatever else comes up.”

Two years ago, Asuncion founded the FilAm Music Foundation, which has a mission of promoting classical musicians of Filipino-American descent. One of its offshoots is the Evanston Chamber Music Society, which had to suspend its 2019-20 season in March because of coronavirus-related restrictions. Featured at the start or between selections on all three festival programs will be young artists of Filipino-American descent playing short solo works.

What will not be heard on the program is the piano or Asuncion, because there is no space for a piano on the covered porch where the musicians will be situated. “This is really just me wanting to hear live music and to give my friends something to do, because they are all craving for gigs,” he said. “Everyone’s calendars have been canceled or postponed. We’ll just see what happens.”

Kyle MacMillan, the former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.

TOP: Frank Almond, former concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony, and CSO viola Catherine Brubaker will perform at the Evanston Chamber Music Festival. | Photos: Almond, courtesy of the artist; Brubaker, Todd Rosenberg Photography