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Classical, new music and opera concerts in Chicago

Your guide to the best chamber music, symphonies, recitals and classical performances in Chicago this month

Photograph: Armen Elliott
International Contemporary Ensemble

The CSO and the Lyric Opera are the alpha dogs in town—with good reason, what with global big-shots like Riccardo Muti and Renee Fleming in the fold. But its the small ensembles that make Chicago the hotbed of new-music, that brand of modern chamber sounds. Regular events like the Frequency Series at Constellation and local troupes such as Third Coast Percussion and eighth blackbird keep pushing the supposedly stuffy genre of classical music in exciting new directions for the 21st century. In the summer, the music moves outside with the Grant Park Music Festival, Ravinia Festival and free series like Loops and Variations in Millennium Park.

Here are our picks of the best classical events on offer this month.

RECOMMENDED: The best concerts in Chicago this month

May's best classical and opera

Shanghai Quartet


The UChicago Presents series has been killing it in recent years, especially as pertains to its roster of string quartets. World-class bruisers like the Takács, Jupiter and Pacifica (the UChicago ensemble-in-residence) quartets have made appearances, and now the Hyde Park institution is adding the excellent Shanghai Quartet to the list. With over 25 albums under its collective belt, this band is responsible for a heavy dose of new commissions, including the one I’m most itching to hear them play: Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 3: Leaves from an unwritten diary.

Until Fri May 2

Parlour Pagananza

Chicago’s first new-music cassette label is taking stock of its idiosyncratic inaugural year with a deviant dance party. That the venue is an undisclosed location in Pilsen is making me nostalgic for early-'90s raves, but this pagan bacchanal will be bouncing to remixes of Parlour Tapes+’s first two Chicago-centric albums, Chambers and *And. Remixologists include penguin penguin, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, DoJo, MrDougDoug, Ross Karre, Searchl1te, Morgan Krauss, protean and the Vale, and ticket holders will be treated to an open bar. No word yet on whether or not this sonic rite will include the immolation of a Wicker Man.

Loops & Variations: Marcos Balter Celebration


It is near-impossible to think of a more galvanizing character in the Chicago new-music community than composer Marcos Balter. An artist as in-demand as mustache wax in Logan Square, Balter is an omnipresent fixture at contemporary classical shows regardless of whether or not his charts are on the program, and for that reason among many, DCASE’s Loops & Variations series is throwing him a 40th-birthday bash. Playing some of the composer’s most gripping solo and small-ensemble numbers are Ryan Muncy (saxophone), Claire Chase (flute), Nadia Sirota (viola), and Rebekah Heller (bassoon). That the birthday boy is writing a new work for the quartet is icing on the proverbial cake.

Until Sun May 4

MusicNOW: Companions


Classical music just got a bit more athletic with the final installment of the MusicNOW series for this season. Hysterica Dance Company and choreographer Kitty McNamee will kick up the visual element of CSO composer-in-residence Anna Clyne’s “Fits + Starts,” an electro-acoustic affair built from viola, cello and harpsichord samples. Then it’s off to church for Andrew Norman’s “Companion Guide to Rome,” a string trio (and 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist) which unpacks the features of nine Roman houses of worship for its inspiration. The main reason to get your ass out the door on this Monday night, though, is Oscar Bettison’s prismatic “Livre des Sauvages.” We’re talking a chamber concerto comprised, in part, of air pumps, wine bottles, a custom “wrenchophone” and those desk bells your teacher used to thwack to get you to knock it off, mister.

Until Mon May 5

Nadia Sirota & Missy Mazzoli


Take note, aspiring new-music soloists: Chicago is doubling down on Nadia Sirota this month. The New-York based violist is responsible for two top-shelf solo records, First Things First and Baroque, not to mention guest appearances on albums by Son Lux, Grizzly Bear, Ratatat and the National. For her Constellation date, Sirota leans heavy on the oeuvre and collaborative piano-work of Missy Mazzoli, who will be on hand, and I’m especially amped to hear a live performance of Shara Worden's (a.k.a. My Brightest Diamond) “From the Invisible to the Visible.”

Until Thu May 8

Mike Weis + Alejandro T. Acierto


The reboot of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson is pretty fantastic…save for the soundtrack. If there were more imaginative sound designers at the helm of the show, Zelienople’s Mike Weis and clarinet soloist Alejandro Acierto would be on the track list. Seekers of music at the fringe will undoubtedly be hip to Zelienople, but Sunday’s Frequency Series show offers a unique look at one of the band’s more prolific members, percussionist Weis. Eschewing his musique concrète loops for a straight acoustic percussion set, all will be laid bare. Acierto will be previewing his upcoming full-length, amid these traces. If his 2013 EP, those prone to dysphasiatic utterances, is any indication, this will be one thermogenic show.

Until Sun May 11

CONTEMPO: Tomorrow's Music Today II


By all means, get thee to Tomorrow’s Music Today I with eighth blackbird on May 9th. The reason Part Deux made it on this list, however, is that 1) the Pacifica Quartet is a Chicago treasure, even if they are primarily based in Indiana these days, and 2) the three student composers represented are doing phenomenal work. Andrew McManus, Jae-Goo Lee and Tomas Gueglio are all names to keep an eye out for, and kudos to CONTEMPO for serving up a free concert showcasing up-and-coming talent on its venerable series.

Until Fri May 16

Nate Wooley


Oregon native Nate Wooley is one of a small batch of trumpeters hell bent on dangling from the precipice of possibility like Russian climbing daredevils on unfinished skyscrapers. The visionary improvisor lists John Zorn, Ken Vandermark and Fred Frith as collaborators, and his current project traverses speech phonemes and timbres through his chosen hunk of metal. LAMPO has delivered a stellar season this year, and the Wooley entry promises to be a burner.

Until Sat May 17

Fifth House Ensemble: Luna de Cuernos


Those that caught the Black Violet serial know that Fifth House Ensemble is shrewd in creating narratives through music in collaboration with graphic artists. For its latest endeavor, Luna de Cuernos, Fifth House has teamed up with Chicago’s Sarah Becan, and the promo video on the group’s website is stoking my interest. The story revolves around Doña Yuiza and her threatened Chicago garden. What has me eager to see this show is the inclusion of the music of Mexican composer Mario Lavista, whose ingenious scores deserve far more exposure in our city than they currently receive.

Until Thu Dec 8

Ensemble Dal Niente


As public schools decide whether or not to do away with the diabetes delivery systems known as vending machines, we are no doubt coming face-to-face with the reality of our excess, gastronomical or otherwise. One composer who is addressing issues of saturation head-on is France’s Raphaël Cendo, and local avant-gardists ensemble dal niente are his mouthpiece this month. The outer borders of virtuosity will be excavated in this portrait concert, and I am particularly impatient to hear the world premiere of Cendo’s “Graphein” for flute, clarinet, saxophone, horn, harp, piano, percussion, violin, cello and bass. We can only hope Constellation’s bar is brewing up some ungodly saturation cocktail for the occasion.

Until Sun Dec 6