Strings and other things

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Amid all the pomp, ballyhoo and healthy and unhealthy vulgarity accompanying the opening of Symphony Center, the halfway point of the winter musical season seems a good time to remember a salient point: with all due homage paid to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera, the great strength of Chicago as a classical music showplace rests in no small part on the vast array of smaller chamber and vocal groups, regional ensembles, and arts organizations in and around the metro and outlying areas.

The days when one had to venture to a 2-mile-wide area of downtown to hear a first-rate musical performance are long past, and few are the suburban communities today where a screwdriver sale at Handy Andy is still considered a major cultural event. From the North Shore, where the Lake Forest Symphony is hosting pianist Byron Janis' first area concerto appearance in three decades, to the first-class artists booked at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, to the solid musicmaking of the Elgin Symphony to the far west, there is a multitude of accomplished musicians, orchestras and festivals presenting worthwhile performances at nearly all points on the regional map.

Not all may possess the glossy reputation of the big boys on Michigan Avenue, but for the impecunious music lover, the groups listed below offer high-quality performances at prices most can afford without having to take out a second mortgage or sell pets for medical experiments.

Here then is an overview of some of the leading area ensembles listing venue, next concert event and phone number. Happy musical hunting. Orchestras

In their post-opera-season guise as Symphony II, the superb musicians of the Lyric Opera Orchestra bring style, verve and unjaded enthusiasm to their orchestral concert mini-series (Pick-Staiger Hall, Evanston; Feb. 15; 847-866-6888).

One of the notable coups of this season is the Lake Forest Symphony's snaring of celebrated pianist Byron Janis for his much-anticipated local return after a battle with arthritis cut short his career (Drake Theater at Barat College; Jan. 9, 10; 847-295-2135).

In their first season as the Metropolis Symphony Orchestra -- formerly Symphony of the Shores -- this youthful orchestra under music director Steven Martyn Zike offers energetic performances and quirkily offbeat programming (Medinah Temple and Pick-Staiger Hall; Feb. 1, 2; 847-869-3133).

Under Paul Freeman, the Chicago Sinfonietta enters its second decade this season, continuing its unique emphasis on eclectic works and musical diversity (Dominican University, River Forest, and Symphony Center; Nov. 23, 24; 312-857-1062).

The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra plays with a maturity and commitment impressive for musicians of any age, and Rossen Milanov takes the helm in his first season as music director (Symphony Center; Nov. 28; 312-939-2207).

Carmon DeLeone leads the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, the south suburbs' only resident professional orchestra (Center for the Performing Arts, University Park; Nov. 22; 708-481-7774).

Of the wealth of regional and community orchestras, notable are the Elgin Symphony Orchestra (Hemmens Theatre; Nov. 22, 23; 847-888-4000); the North Suburban Symphony (Gorton Community Center, Lake Forest; Nov. 23; 847-926-8554); the Rockford Symphony (Midway Theater; Dec. 6, 7; 815-965-0049); the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest (708-488-4101) and the DuPage Symphony Orchestra (North Central College, Dec. 7; 630-690-8644).

Chamber ensembles

Alan Heatherington's Ars Viva offers stylish, intelligently planned music for varied ensembles (North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie; Jan. 25; 847-673-6300), and Hilel Kagan presents a striking assortment of music with the spotlight on soloists with Concertante di Chicago (DePaul University Concert Hall; Feb. 8; 312-621-5265). CSO clarinetist John Bruch Yeh joins the outstanding Chicago String Ensemble (First United Methodist Church, Evanston; St. Paul's Church, Chicago; March 6, 8; 312-332-0567), and Francis Akos leads the Highland Park Strings (Highland Park High School; Dec. 7; 847-831-3810).

With a core heavy on CSO members, the Chicago Chamber Musicians offer virtuosic chamber music performances on the highest level (Pick-Staiger Concert Hall and DePaul University Concert Hall; Feb. 8-11; 312-225-5226), as do the Rembrandt Chamber Players (Nov. 30, Dec 1; Lutkin Hall, Evanston, and DePaul University Concert Hall; 847-328-2492).

The Orion Ensemble presents challenging and innovative concerts (Fox Valley United Church in Batavia and Roosevelt University; March 8, 9; 630-628-9591), and Chicago's most celebrated resident string ensemble, the Vermeer Quartet, will host CSO principal oboe Alex Klein (DePaul University Concert Hall; Dec. 14; 312-663-1628).

John Mark Rozendaal's wry verbal program notes add spice to the Chicago Baroque Ensemble's learned yet unstuffy period-instrument concerts (various venues; Jan. 3-5; 312-464-0600).

Vocal and choral music

It's hardly an obscure group, but Music of the Baroque under Thomas Wikman offers the most consistently polished and stylish performances of a wide variety of pre-Classical repertoire, with the emphasis on vocal music (Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, and United Church of Hyde Park; Nov. 22, 23; 312-551-1414).

Two of the area's leading early-music vocal ensembles offer programs of pre-Baroque Christmas music: His Majestie's Clerkes, led by Anne Heider (various locations; Dec. 13, 14, 20, 21; 312-461-0723), and the Newberry Consort, led by director and violist de gamba Mary Springfels (various locations; Dec. 10-14; 312-255-3700). The Scholars of Cambrai celebrate 10 years of presenting Renaissance vocal music this season (various locations; Feb. 6-8; 708-758-3750).

The William Ferris Chorale's Christmas concert is a holiday tradition for many Chicagoans (Mt. Carmel Church; Dec. 5; 773-325-2000), and other seasonal concerts are offered by Chicago a cappella (various venues; Dec. 14, 20, 21; 708-383-7599) and the Chicago Choral Artists (various venues; Dec. 6, 7, 13; 773-561-2424).

Operetta and lighter musical works are presented in lively, fully staged productions by Light Opera Works (``The Merry Widow'' at Cahn Auditorium, Evanston; Dec. 27-Jan. 4; 847-869-6300).

Other vocal ensembles worth investigating include the New Oratorio Singers (St. Francis Church, Lake Zurich, and Divine Word Chapel, Techny; Dec.12, 14; 847-604-1067) and the North Shore Choral Society (Pick-Staiger Concert Hall; Nov. 23; 847-328-5158).

University series and regional arts presenters

Most arts booking organizations should have the batting average of the University of Chicago Concerts Series, which manages to field a consistently stellar lineup of visiting artists and ensembles, such as the Anonymous 4 (University of Chicago, Mandel Hall; Dec. 12; 773-702-8068).

In Oak Park, Ascension Church provides a unique and imposing ambience for another solid roster of musical guests for the Concerts Under the Dome series (the Paramount Brass Quintet at Ascension Church; Dec. 6; 708-383-6456).

The Chamber Music at North Park College Series is also worth a look (Anderson Chapel; Swedish Brass on Jan. 30; 773-244-5630), and to the south, the splendid new Center for the Performing Arts in University Park hosts a varied lineup of music, dance and theater events (Center for the Performing Arts, University Park; Feb. 15; Thomas Bowes, violin; Eleanor Alberga, piano; 708-235-2222).

Also worth investigating are the Golden Prague Chamber Music Series (baritone William Andrew Stuckey, at Lutkin Hall, Northwestern University, Evanston; Jan. 3; 847-864-0112) and the Chamber Music Society of the North Shore (Ying Quartet at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie; Nov. 23; 847-835-5084).

The cream of Chicago's musicians will again be taking part in the 1998 Bach Week Festival, which will include the complete ``Christmas Oratorio'' (St. Luke's Church, Evanston, May 1-10; 847-945-5625), and those who like to plan ahead should mark down the summer Woodstock Mozart Festival (Woodstock Opera House; July 31-Aug. 15; 815-338-5300).

The picnicking is a little rugged this time of year, but the Ravinia Festival's Rising Stars series provides a great look at the best of today's younger musicians (Bennett-Gordon Hall, Ravinia, Highland Park; Mila Georgieva on Dec. 5; 847-266-5100).

Finally, the best deal of all -- the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts Series, which has presented free classical events to the public at noon every Wednesday for the last 20 years (Preston Bradley Hall, at the Chicago Cultural Center).

If your classical music group is not mentioned here and would like to be considered for coverage in the future, send a press release to Friday Listings, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.

Johnson is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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