Building Bridges: The iron is hot for fusing jazz and classical in RSMI's composition competition

By James Turano

Mashups have been the mother of invention for decades. From music to language, a whole that’s more than the sum of its immediately familiar parts gives us the newness that we crave from the comfort of what we already enjoy. They’re the inspired shuffle buttons that have given us the likes of YouTube sensations The Piano Guys and Pentatonix. It’s also where we get new words like hangry.

But going beyond putting together words and sounds, creating a fusion of music down to its very roots so that the parts occupy the same space rather than simply share it, is something different. Composers of music throughout history have regularly dared to twist the familiar into the unexpected with a little help from something unexpectedly familiar—that’s how we created rock and roll right here in the US. But can a new fusion catch on? How many different ways can one sound before it becomes something new again? Does it even sound good? How many people agree it’s worth making or listening to? These are the sorts of questions Ravinia opened up for the asking when it created an international musical composition competition this past winter, and the answers will come during a first-of-its-kind concert at the festival on June 9.

Gene Knific is a Chicago-based composer and pianist.

That night will also mark the first summer entry in celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, the festival’s summer conservatory that connects some of the best young professional musicians from around the world with an esteemed faculty for concerts, master classes, and more learning opportunities onsite in the John D. Harza Building and from its Bennett Gordon Hall stage. “For decades, our musical leaders and supporters dreamed of having a college-level conservatory right here at Ravinia, and they made it happen in 1988. It’s become a major source of pride for Ravinia, and an important opportunity for performers,” said Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman.

It was in the spirit of the intense and aspirational goals of RSMI’s ambitious programs for jazz and classical musicians—as well as the bold musical vision of Leonard Bernstein, whom Ravinia has just gotten underway celebrating with an expansive multiyear tribute—that Bridges, an international jazz and classical fusion composition competition, was born. It offered an imaginative challenge for artists ages 17–30 (the same age range as the 60–70 performers invited to RSMI each year) to compose original works specifically for a string quartet and a jazz trio. “The Bridges competition was conceived to help give young professionals a place on the map—if not the world stage—which is precisely what RSMI has been granting singers and instrumentalists for the past three decades,” Kauffman said. The directors of the RSMI Program for Jazz had long dreamed of such a competition, having written many works combining jazz and classical music and players themselves.

Since 2000, jazz players from across the nation have been hand-picked by the RSMI Program for Jazz faculty to spend a week together performing in and composing for ensembles of varying instrumentation. The Bridges competition challenged composers to expand on that with music for jazz trio and classical string quartet.

In addition to a commemoration of the anniversary, the Bridges competition and concert is a tribute to the late David Baker, the highly lauded jazz composer/performer and distinguished professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music who had served as the director of the RSMI Program for Jazz since its inception in 2000. The winners of the competition share equally in the David Baker Prize.

The present directors of the RSMI Program for Jazz served as adjudicators, receiving submissions—works were required to be 10 minutes long and never previously performed—between November and February and spending the next month selecting the winners, who were announced in March: Sam Blakeslee, Zach Bornheimer, and Gene Knific. “We picked three works that celebrate RSMI, will entertain our audiences, and will live on beyond this 30th anniversary year,” said pianist and co-director Billy Childs, who is known for inventive, hybrid projects and who this year won his fifth career Grammy Award with the album Rebirth. ▪

James Turano is a freelance writer and a former entertainment editor, feature writer, and columnist for national and local magazines and newspapers. He has written official programs for eight Elton John tours since 2003, and is also a Chicago radio personality and host, heard regularly on WGN Radio 720AM.