Sunday, December 29, 2002

Chicagoans of the year

2002 was full of economic challenges and creative successes for the arts and the organizations behind them. For the 18th year, Chicago Tribune critics have selected the artists, entertainers and administrators who have had an impact here and on the national scene as our Chicagoans of the Year. You may find names you know, many you don’t, and perhaps even a couple of people you’ve long admired and wondered how they spent their important, early years in Chicago. The critics who selected these individuals are: Blair Kamin, Greg Kot, Steve Johnson, Howard Reich, Alan Arthur, John von Rhein, Sid Smith, Allan Johnston, Chris Jones and Michael Phillips.

Patricia Morehead

“I love the incredible musical diversity of the artistic community in Chicago; it is an endless source of fascination and inspiration. This is a city where so many musical styles converge in the concert halls, on the street, in clubs, art museums and funky underground places. Only in this city could I compose music influenced by jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll — and Ralph Shapey.”

Janice Misurell-Mitchell

“The music world inside Chicago venues inevitably finds its way into my music. I always feel buoyed by the music of the street — the sound of a sax in the subways, the drums on Wabash. But my most important inspiration is Lake Michigan. The splashing of its unpredictable waves has given me many ideas for music that sparkles, surges and tumbles.”

Janice Misurell-Mitchell and Patricia
Morehead: CUBE is a labor of love

So, how did the CUBE Contemporary Music Ensemble get its name? The city's friskiest, most out-there new music group, according to Patricia Morehead and Janice Misurell-Mitchell, was meant to evoke the idea of Cubist art and abstract music, but also to suggest a box with six equal facets — one for each member of the ensemble. "You can put any kind of music stylistically into the box and we do," says Morehead, "but only music from the 20th and 21st Centuries, of our own time and place."

This 15th anniversary year has been especially fruitful for CUBE and its co-directors. The group devoted programs in the spring and fall to composers who have lived, or are living, in Chicago — the late Ralph Shapey, Shulamit Ran, Sebastian Huydts, M. William Karlins, Robert Lombardo and Regina Harris Baiocchi, among others. It also gave three performances of a commissioned work by composer-in-residence Ilya Levinson, The Tell-Tale Heart, for baritone and instrumental ensemble. In October, ensemble members trooped to the performance studio at WFMT (98.7 FM), to present a full-length live broadcast concert.

Many Chicago-area contemporary music ensembles died because they couldn't drum up adequate support, their musicians departed for greener pastures, or they grew weary of fighting for attention. Defying the odds, CUBE has hung in there, carving out a small but loyal public for its eclectic programs despite the lack of a permanent venue and ever-present money concerns.

Despite its limited means, 15 years after its humble formation in Hyde Park the sextet is living happily on the cutting edge of new music, proud of its status as the least hidebound of area contemporary music ensembles. CUBE continues to give pride of place to music by Chicago composers. But while the co-directors have their own aesthetic preferences, the group is open to works of all styles, from Boulez to boogie. Indeed, Morehead says, “You never quite know what you're going to get at a CUBE concert.”

Having two composerinstrumentalists in charge helps keeps the performance level high in addition to providing a steady stream of new works and commissions tailored to the group's unusual disposition of instruments: Morehead on oboe and English horn, Misurell- Mitchell on flute. (The latter also provides vocals when needed.) Other ensemble members are Caroline Pittman, flute; Christie Vohs, clarinet; Dane Richeson, percussion; and Philip Morehead (Patricia's husband), keyboards and conductor.

"Being composers as well as performers, we are rather like lightning rods for others," says Misurell-Mitchell, who joined CUBE shortly after its formation in 1987. "We get new scores submitted from all over the country."

In its early days, CUBE couldn't afford to be choosy about where it performed. Members schlepped their woodwinds, keyboards and drums to dusty basements, warehouses and storefront theaters where they put on concerts pretty much when they felt like it. "We found audiences who were thirsty for this kind of music but didn't know where to find it, so we came to them," Misurell- Mitchell re-calls. Once the word got out about how good the group was, more people started turning up in greater numbers. Classier venues became available, arts council grants began trickling in.

Today the plucky sextet faces a familiar. Catch-22 situation: It's tough to grow without institutional support, but it's also hard to attract institutional support without being bigger. "We’ve never had an angel, and money has always been very hard to find," Morehead explains. (CUBE’s budget stands at a modest $45,000.) "Playing with CUBE has to be a labor of love for all of us, because there’s not enough pay to cover the long hours we put in learning challenging new music."

Cash-strapped or no, CUBE’s composer-directors continue to add excitement —and unpredictability — to our musical life. Their success is living proof that new musiccan be fun as well as ear-opening. During 2003, you can catch the group performing at such South Loop venues as Columbia College Chicago and the Sherwood Conservatory of Music. The ensemble will present its official 15th anniversary concert March 16 at the Harold Washington Library. Nearly30 musicians — the largest performing component CUBE has ever fielded — are scheduled to take part in that event, playing works for voices and instrumental ensembles by Morehead and Misurell- Mitchell. Fifteen years and counting, CUBE is an uppercase ensemble in more ways than one.

—John von Rhein