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Baroque Band concerts a contemporary affair at the MCA

Jennifer Jolley's work 'Toy Trolley'  was inspired part by big-city sounds Chicago especially its many trains.

Jennifer Jolley's work, "Toy Trolley," was inspired in part by the big-city sounds of Chicago, especially its many trains.

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Baroque Band

♦ Feb. 21-24

♦ Edlis Neeson Theater, Museum of Contemporary Chicago, 220 E. Chicago

♦ Tickets, $28; three-concert package, $60

♦ (312) 397-4010;

Updated: March 16, 2013 6:12AM

Considering the baroque era in music lasted roughly from 1600 to 1750, the words “baroque” and “contemporary” do not typically go together in the same sentence.

But the Chicago-based Baroque Band hopes to rethink that dichotomy by bridging old and new in a series of three concerts starting through Feb. 21 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

“This will be our first initiative at the MCA,” said Garry Clarke, the six-year-old ensemble’s artistic director, “and I think it’s the contemporary angle and the twist on the contemporary angle that fits so well with their mission.”

The series is based around a simple idea. Each of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six “Brandenburg” concertos — among the best-known and most popular baroque works — will be paired with a contemporary composition using an identical instrumentation.

Other groups, including the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, have undertaken similar projects, but this is believed to be the first time a period-instrument ensemble has tried it.

The Baroque Band, which has a core group of 13 to 15 players, performs on baroque-style instruments, which produce a sound that is lighter, more transparent and more organic than their modern equivalents. In terms of the violins, for example, that means gut (vs. steel) strings, a shorter finger board and a differently shaped bow requiring a lighter grip.

Four of the pieces were commissioned for these concerts, with the ensemble choosing composers from a wide mix of backgrounds: Elbio Barilari, David Fulmer, Jennifer Jolley and Jason Seed. Clarke asked them to capitalize on the differences in sound and distinctive capabilities of the period instruments and use them in fresh, new ways.

Jolley, 32, an assistant professor of music at Ohio Wesleyan University inDelaware, Ohio, draws inspiration from an array of sources in her music. “Sounds from the Gray Goo 3.0,” for example, offers an aural imagining of an apocalyptic invasion of nanorobots.

Jolley’s contribution to this project is paired with the “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 5, and it borrows certain motifs from the older piece.

“I feel like it’s more of a musical offering or response to the ‘Brandenburg’ Fifth Concerto instead of trying to re-create a new one,” she said. “Knowing that I would be writing for period instruments, I didn’t want to do anything too crazy that the period-instrument ensemble would not be able to do.”

The three-movement piece, written in a kind of minimalist style, was inspired in part by the big-city sounds of Chicago, especially its many trains. “I wanted to take the musical energy from the Brandenburg concerto ­— these 16th notes and this constant sequential motion — and combine it with this idea of what I think trains would sound like musically,” she said.

While she has enormous respect for Bach, she didn’t try to directly measure up to him. Instead, she wrote a piece in her own voice and on her own terms, called “Strassenbahn” (“Toy Trolley”).

“If I compared myself everyday with Bach,” Jolley said, “I don’t think I’d be able to proceed with my life. It would be too much pressure. So, I was like, ‘This is going to be a piece that I write.’ It’s not meant to be compared — which is better per se. It’s just different.”

Rounding out the three-concert line-up will be two already existing responses to the “Brandenburg” concertos by Christopher Theofanidis and Anna Clyne, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence.

It’s too early to say how this week’s pairing of past and present will work, but Clarke is confident that the contemporary pieces will bring a new dynamism to Bach’s classic masterworks. At the same time, he hopes there will be happy musical discoveries by both contemporary and baroque music fans in attendance.

“It will be great,” he said, “to infuse and encourage new audiences for both types of music.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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