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Chamber music flowing, too, this summer

The sterling Grant Park Music Festival and the prestige of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia draw most attention on the summer classical schedule, and understandably so.

But the Chicago area now features a near year-round chamber music and recital scene as well with two intimate indoor houses at Highland Park’s Ravinia and another in a landmark downtown church just eight blocks from the Pritzker Pavilion. Costs are reasonable, too, for Martin Theatre programs up north, with lower-priced lawn tickets also available. The fully air-conditioned Bennett-Gordon Hall series concerts there are just $10 (although with no lawn option).

And the Tuesday evening Rush Hour Concerts at Saint James (Episcopal) Cathedral off North Michigan Avenue are free, include pre-performance refreshments and also are broadcast live over WFMT-FM (98.7) each week.

I’ve taken in a number of recent and highly satisfying performances at each venue and can highly recommend most of their upcoming offerings, which continue through August at Saint James and through Sept. 8 at Ravinia.

* Rush Hour Concerts, founded by area pianist and not-for-profit classical entrepreneur Deborah Sobol, are in their 14th year. Their summer focus now includes the all-day citywide Make Music Chicago event each June as well as numerous educational and community engagement activities. Its core is the 13-week series of 45-minute concerts by some of the area’s top musicians Tuesdays at 5:45 p.m. — “great music for busy lives,” in Sobol’s words.

Among this year’s performances, I caught the excellent early June opener with Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Brant Taylor playing Rachmaninoff and in early July the annual program co-sponsored with the Poetry Foundation, this year with the strong Euclid Quartet playing Bartok and veteran actors Suzanne Petri and John Mohrlein reading a wide selection of poems.

And last week I heard CSO trombonist Michael Mulcahy and three national colleagues, who joined him in an all-trombone quartet in an unusual program of Gabrieli, Beethoven (music by the composer that was played at his funeral) and Shostakovich.

The four August programs include a Schubertiade with legendary clarinetist Larry Combs, a Benjamin Britten centenary commemoration, contemporary percussion music and the Chausson chamber concerto, all of these in the pre-Chicago Fire Episcopal Cathedral of Saint James at Wabash and Huron with its reflection-inducing 1888 Victorian stenciled interior.

* Last Wednesday Ravinia music director James Conlon offered his annual chamber showcase at Ravinia’s historic Martin Theatre featuring composers silenced or exiled by the Nazi era. This year rarely played works of violinist Adolf Busch (a non-Jewish voluntary exile from his native Germany who then founded the famed Marlboro Festival in Vermont) and Walter Braunfels (considered a “half-Jew” by the Nazis prohibited from participating in musical life and forced into an “inner exile” along the German-Swiss border) bracketed Britten’s very late vocal chamber work “Phaedra” and Samuel Barber’s “Dover Beach.” Top chamber players from the CSO played the works as of they had known them for years.

Tuesday night, soprano Nicole Cabell, a Chicago favorite, gave a wholly enchanting recital of songs of American composer Ricky Ian Gordon setting poems by Langston Hughes, with Gordon himself as pianist. Aug. 26 brings the area premiere of David Lang’s delicate Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Little Match Girl Passion” and contributions by the superb instrumentalists eighth blackbird. Sadly, the two-night survey of all six Bartok quartets by the excellent Takacs Quartet set for Aug. 5 and 6 has been canceled due to a player’s illness.

* Most intriguingly, no fewer than 18 (!) more 6 p.m. $10 Bennet-Gordon hall recitals, most of them debuts and mostly by young artists, remain over the next six weeks at Ravinia, not even counting several song recitals connected with the very fine vocal program of the Steans Institute advanced training program. Series performers are encouraged to play unusual repertoire and even selected for their willingness to push edges as well as their enviable abilities.

Last week I attended the area debut of British phenom Benjamin Grosvenor, who just turned 21 this month. The soft-spoken, physically reserved Brit looks back to such almost outlandishly Romantic pianists as Moriz Rosenthal and the late Ravinia regular Shura Cherkassky for technical, stylistic and repertoire inspiration. His recital here started with Bach and, including encores, eventually went on to such show-stoppers as an over-the-top setting of “The Blue Danube” championed by both Rosenthal and Cherkassky, unusual Liszt, and Morton Gould’s “Boogie Woogie Etude.”

The whole series, from newcomers to Rachel Barton Pine to the Lincoln Trio, looks great. Pick any one or more and take a chance. You can even get the express Metra train from Ogilvie, Ravenswood or Rogers Park and easily make the 6 p.m, start without even thinking about traffic.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT.

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