Augusta Read Thomas’s Ear Taxi festival delivers a soaring ode to Chicago’s new music culture

The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra at Ear Taxi.
The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra at Ear Taxi. (Grant Rindner/MEDILL)

By Grant Rindner

Chicago is a music festival mecca with everyone covered, from hip-hop heads (AAHH Fest) to jazz aficionados (Hyde Park Jazz Festival) to EDM junkies (Spring Awakening). But vaunted composer Augusta Read Thomas wanted to highlight a vibrant, edgy music community that  has yet to receive its due on that same scale – the contemporary classical scene.

“Hopefully people will realize that we have the most vibrant contemporary classical music scene in Chicago. It’s right here. Hopefully putting Ear Taxi together will call attention to all these great artists and amazing composers,” said Thomas, who partnered with a wealth of institutions from Northwestern University to WBEZ to the Chicago Symphony to make the festival happen. “I think it’s a great city story. We have the whole city involved in this, literally.”

Ear Taxi, runs through Oct. 10,  a sprawling testament to the city’s talent featuring more than 300 musicians, 88 composers and 53 world premieres. It opened on Oct. 5 with performances from the Fulcrum Point New Music Project conducted by Stephen Burns, who  helped Thomas plan the festival, along with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, who also took the stage on opening night. The performances are stunning – cerebral one moment and emotional the next, joyously cacophonous in one measure, and solemnly restrained in the next.

Thomas initially conceived of the idea for Ear Taxi three years ago, and announced the festival in May 2015. Its lengthy genesis was a product of Thomas having to secure funding and line up a cavalcade of talent, both on stage and behind the scenes.

“It’s totally a grassroots effort, I basically built it out of my living room. As such it’s all put together a la carte, so I had to raise money and then get a physical sponsor and then get the concert halls and then reach every player and reach every musician,” she said, listing off the myriad duties associated with bringing this massive event to life.

Thomas applied for a grant and assembled a curatorial board to assist her and answer questions over the years of planning. She pledged to feature exclusively Chicago musicians and composers, and said that having that community connection is a central tenet of Ear Taxi. Many of the festival’s performances are preceded by a “Meet the Artists” event where fans can meet not only the composers whose work is being featured in that specific performance, but also various other Ear Taxi artists who happen to be on hand.

“One of the things that we’ve done is that all of the artists have a lanyard that says performer or composer, so people can identify them and say, ‘Oh that’s cool, I heard your piece.’ And hopefully conversations will start,” said Thomas, who initially came to the area in 1983 to study trumpet at Northwestern. “If you come to a show and like a piece the artist probably lives five miles from you.”

All of the artists performing at Ear Taxi are paid the same guaranteed minimum fee for doing the same amount of work. The proceeds made from the festival are also given to the artists after it concludes.

Judging by the opening night, Thomas’s effort is certainly appreciated by the city. When the composer came on stage to speak during the CYSO performance no sooner did she begin to introduce herself than thunderous applause rose from the audience. Patrons of all ages packed into the Harris Theater, which is the primary home for Ear Taxi.

“I love Augusta Read Thomas, in part because her initials spell ‘ART,’” said Haley Titus, a neuroimmunologist at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. She also explained that, because the tones of new music can sometimes be dissonant and difficult for the brain to process, it helps to concoct a backstory that meshes with the sound.

Chicagoan David Grusenmeyer, a contemporary classical enthusiast, was impressed with the festival’s opening night, particularly the CYSO, who performed as the evening’s second act.

“It’s heartening to see talented young people up there, even if there’s barely room to breathe,” Grusenmeyer remarked. “But were there really eight bassoons up there?”

Allen Tinkham conducts the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra performing Jonathan Newman’s “Blow It Up, Start Again.” (Grant Rindner/MEDILL]

While new music talent in Chicago is clearly abundant, Thomas said  Ear Taxi is special in another way  – the festival’s inaugural run may be its final one, too.

“This for me is a one-off; it’s a complete life project. There is no way on earth I could do it again, I would be dead,” Thomas said, citing her busy composing schedule as the main reason she couldn’t orchestrate another festival.

She did, however, leave room for another intrepid Chicagoan to take the wheel in her stead.

“If someone came to me and said, ‘Hey can I do another Ear Taxi Festival in three years?’ I would say go for it, run with it, it’s yours.”

Photo at top: Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra performs at Ear Taxi. (Grant Rindner/MEDILL)