Camerata Chicago is the best local chamber orchestra you've probably never heard of.
But pay heed: The group is celebrating its 10th anniversary this season, is about to release a new recording and is preparing for its first European tour next month. It's one of several worthy professional ensembles in and around the city that are giving jaded audience ears a respite from the same old, same old.
Drostan Hall, the orchestra's British-born founder and music director, clearly is eager to move Camerata Chicago to a higher level of public recognition – much higher.
"I would like ours to be known as the chamber orchestra version of the Chicago Symphony," declares the 44-year-old conductor, who will lead the ensemble in a preview of its tour repertory at a free concert Sunday afternoon in Northfield.
To understand how Hall came to launch the group, you first need to understand the power of imagination in his life.
"I've always had this series of dreams," he says. "Once I dream something, everything just takes off from there."
Both parents were professional musicians who put a violin in his hands when he was only 4 years old. The boy would play the fiddle for his uncle, the late conductor Charles Mackerras, at Christmas and other occasions when members of their families performed chamber music in their homes. At 13, Hall was the youngest-ever participant in the famed Britten Pears School at nearby Aldeburgh, and at the same age he entered the first Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition.
A performer's degree from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, led to his being offered a scholarship to attend Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where he studied violin with Shmuel Ashkenasi and other members of the Vermeer Quartet, which has since disbanded. Graduating with a master's degree in music, Hall settled in Wheaton where he opened his own studio, the Hall School of Music, at his home.
Another dream became reality in 2002 when he was invited to direct a local performance of Handel's "Messiah." Although he had no formal training in conducting, the challenge was too tempting to refuse.
He found the experience so enjoyable that he immediately entertained the idea of starting his own chamber orchestra. A friend, cellist David Cunliffe, who was then teaching at the Hall school (he now plays cello in the Lincoln Trio) shared his enthusiasm. Cunliffe suggested "Camerata" would be a good name for the proposed group; Hall came up with the "Chicago" part.
The latter kicked in $5,000 of his own money, and Camerata Chicago was born.
The group operated for a number of seasons as a string ensemble of 12-14 players. Ashkenasi, CSO assistant concertmaster David Taylor and other musician friends helped out in various solo capacities. Appearing three or four times a season at the Chicago Cultural Center and other locations, also on live broadcasts over WFMT FM 98.7, the group eventually took as its home base the National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago, in the Loop.
Meanwhile, says Hall, "I found I loved conducting and it became an all-consuming passion. There was a sense of freedom I hadn't had playing the violin – and I loved working with musicians."
Financial gifts from several corporate and foundation patrons enabled Camerata Chicago to expand to its present roster of 37 players in 2011. "One thing I've wanted to maintain is a very stable, solid roster from season to season," Hall says. "We now have that." The not-for-profit group's budget stands at about $200,000 and it has a six-member board of directors.
Although Hall continues to teach violin privately at his home studio, he devotes the bulk of his time to running Camerata Chicago, with the assistance of family members. His brother Bart, a cellist, is the orchestra's operations manager. Another brother, Sebastian, a recorder player, serves as its social media manager. Both siblings live in England and are, he says, able to do everything perfectly well via phone and Internet.
Surviving for 10 years in Chicago's highly competitive musical jungle is no small accomplishment, a fact Hall well appreciates. To what does he attribute the longevity of Camerata Chicago?
"I'm very passionate about what I do, and I know all my players personally," he replies. "We have a phenomenal complement of strings, led by our concertmaster, Mathias Tacke (former second violin of the Vermeer). He has a very high sense of commitment, and that commitment is, I think, spread all around the orchestra."
Repertory for the group's European debut – a six-concert tour, June 15-24, to Prague, Milan and the French cities of Paris, Tulle and Marseille – includes a newly commissioned work, Chamber Symphony "Pilatus" by Chicago composer Mischa Zupko, which will be premiered at Sunday's concert in Northfield.
Later this summer, Chicago's Cedille label will release the group's recording of cello concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn and Josef Myslivecek, performed by cellist Wendy Warner.
While Hall says he'd love to have "more time to study scores and all that," he confesses that "when I stand on the podium and I'm surrounded by (my) musicians, I feel it's all worth it, every second of it."
Camerata Chicago will perform works by Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner and Zupko, with Wendy Warner as cello soloist, at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in Northfield Lutheran Church of the Ascension, 460 Sunset Ridge Rd., Northfield; free; cameratachicago.org.
Lyric radio broadcasts
Rebroadcasts of opening night performances from Lyric Opera's 2012-13 season will be carried internationally by the WFMT Radio Network and heard locally on WFMT, beginning Saturday and running through July 13. All nine will begin at noon Central time, except for the first, which starts at 1:30 p.m.
Here is the schedule:
Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra," Saturday; Massenet's "Werther," May 25; Donizetti's "Don Pasquale," June 1; Strauss' "Elektra" and Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel," June 8; Puccini's "La Boheme," June 15; Wagner's "Die Meistersinger," June 22; Verdi's "Rigoletto," June 29; Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire," July 6; and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!," July 13.
Sharps and flats
The 26th annual Midwest Classical Record Show will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Holiday Inn Chicago North Shore, 5300 W. Touhy Ave., Skokie. Dealers from across the country will be selling thousands of collectible LPs and CDs. Admission is $2; midwestclassicalshow.com.
American composer John LaMontaine, 93, died April 29 at his home in Hollywood, according to his nephew, Peter Coster. Born in Chicago and raised in Oak Park, LaMontaine composed in a lyrical, tonal idiom that drew on such diverse elements as folksong, jazz and natural sounds. His Piano Concerto No. 1 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1959. From 1950 to 1954, he played piano in the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini.
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