UChicago Presents celebrates 80 seasons of extraordinary music

From Renaissance lutes to Latin jazz—concert series brings intimate performances to University community

Between 1943 and 1944, four great innovators of 20th century music—Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith, and Darius Milhaud—performed in a series of “Composer’s Concerts” at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall.

Stravinsky interpreted the technically demanding, jagged Concerto for Two Pianos. Copland presented a series of newly composed film scores. The evenings even featured the world premiere of Hindemith’s 25-movement Ludus Tonalis—a late piano piece that showcased his innovative theories of musical scale and harmony.

These performances launched the inaugural season of UChicago Presents, which now celebrates its 80th season and carries on the tradition of bringing extraordinary performances and cutting-edge music to the University of Chicago.

“UChicago Presents has always been an innovative voice,” said Executive Director Sarah Curran. “It’s unique in terms of its breadth—showcasing chamber music, early music, world music, jazz and contemporary music.”

Since its origins bringing boundary-pushing classical performers to campus, the series expanded in recent years to feature jazz and musical traditions from around the globe—including China, Korea, India, Iraq, Puerto Rico, Georgia, and other countries.

The series has also served as a home for unexplored and unusual genres, including Medieval, Renaissance and early Baroque music. Fans of early classical music travel far to hear arrangements heard by 17th-century French kings, or rare instruments like the baryton—a bowed string instrument that has rarely been heard since the 18th century. 

“This is music presented by relatively small ensembles in intimate circumstances,” said Lawrence Zbikowski, Addie Clark Harding Professor and Chair of the Department of Music. “Being able to encounter both the string quartet as well as a performer working exclusively on music of Asia within the same series is really an amazing opportunity.”

Bringing top performers to campus

Throughout the 20th century, the series brought renowned classical virtuosos like pianist Charles Rosen and violinist Hilary Hahn to campus. Since 2013, the series has partnered with the University’s ensemble-in-residence series to continue the tradition of bringing the most respected musicians in their fields to UChicago, including most recently the Pacifica Quartet and Amjad Ali Khan—a revered figure in Indian classical music.

Named in honor of musicologist and UChicago’s 12th President Don Michael Randel, the Mellon-funded program has engaged top artists with UChicago faculty, students and staff through public performances, class visits, student composer workshops, panel discussions, collaborations with local artists and workshops with students at University’s Laboratory School.

“It’s a way for our community to have in-depth experiences with the ensemble, and for the resources of the University to serve their research or creative impulses. There’s always a beautiful moment in these residences that sparks either an ongoing relationship or a turn of events for the artists,” said Curran.

When Puerto Rican-based ensemble Plena Libre came to campus in 2019-20, the ensemble-in-residence visited music and Spanish language classes, performed for public dance workshops, and participated in a discussion with UChicago professor Jessica Baker to discuss its high-energy, dance-infused styles including plena and bomba.

UChicago Presents has also highlighted virtuosos from within the University’s Music Department through the SOUND/SITES series, where UChicago musicians performed at stunning architectural settings across campus. SOUND/SITES provided audiences opportunities to discuss music with UChicago faculty and experience lively and virtuosic musical performances during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Percussionist John Corkill performed contemporary music, including works by Augusta Read Thomas, at the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library. 

A history of musical innovation

Throughout its history, UChicago Presents has brought musical scholarship in dialogue with performance.

“Musical scholarship is a little bit different from some other kinds of scholarship. You really have to be engaged with the music. You have to be listening to it,” Zbikowski said. “Practically everyone on the faculty has knowledge about the performance of music and participated in those traditions. UChicago Presents dives deep, putting scholarship in dialogue with the actual music itself.”

In 1946, a few years following Stravinsky’s and Copland’s appearances on campus, Arnold Schoenberg presented lectures exploring the groundbreaking new compositional method that he invented. The method, referred to as “twelve-tone” composition, subverted Western ideas of harmony and created a new musical vocabulary where all 12 notes of the musical scale are given equal importance. That same week, audiences heard it for themselves in a concert performance.

Through the 1960s and to this day, University scholars and composers from Ralph Shapey to Augusta Read Thomas have made the University a vibrant destination for the performance and discussion of new music. Today, Thomas’ Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition presents several debut performances of contemporary compositions annually in partnership with UChicago Presents every year, providing a unique forum for students and established contemporary composers to present, workshop and discuss their work.

Recently, Curran has focused on using the series as a forum to explore music’s interactions with other forms of media.

“I’ve worked in music and in a number of different arts disciplines, and one of the things I’m always excited about is both bringing together disciplines, but also working with artists who don’t necessarily fit squarely in one box,” said Curran.

During its 80th season, the series presented a collaboration with the Court Theatre at the intersections of chamber music and theater, featuring contemporary ensemble Eighth Blackbird performing text by American poet Gertrude Stein. Another performance combined music, 3D stereoscopic films, AI imaging systems and dance in an interpretation of texts by Martin Luther.

“Within many traditions, music is not simply all by itself. It can be part of dance, it can be a part of theatrical practices, and of course it can be part of religious practices as well. Sarah is continuing to build more of that into the series,” Zbikowski said.

Closing an unforgettable 80th season

Throughout its 80 years, UChicago Presents has consistently brought intimate, uncommon small ensemble performances that you won’t hear anywhere else in the city to the University community. And it has always emphasized doing so at an accessible price.

“Even if it’s a genre you’re not familiar with, you can go to a performance knowing it’s going to be of a certain quality. You're going to know it's accessible, it’s affordable and it’s almost always going to be an innovator of their form,” said Curran. “Whether they’re a chamber musician or blues musician, they’re going to be pushing the boundaries, coming up with something new, interesting and exciting.”

Don’t miss the chance to hear these inventive artists as the series celebrates the end of its 80th season with an exciting array of performances across genres:

  • April 19: Composer and pianist Myra Melford’s jazz supergroup, Fire and Water Quintet, featuring Mary Halvorson (guitar), Tomeka Reid (cello), Ingrid Laubrock (saxophone), and Lesley Mok (drums), plays a concert inspired by Gaeta Set by American visual artist, Cy Twombly.
  • April 26: Isidore Quartet, formed by four string players at the Juilliard School, brings a fresh approach to classical works in a century-spanning program with music by Mendelssohn, Britten, and Wijeratne.
  • May 17: The Grossman Ensemble, UChicago’s resident new music ensemble, presents new compositions exploring relationships, textures, and electroacoustic elements in World Premieres III.

Get your tickets for the final concerts of the season at this link. Learn more about UChicago Presents at chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.