Rare melodies on the prairie
By Trine Tsouderos, Tribune staff reporter
Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune
A barn is not the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of baroque music.
Then again, neither is Grayslake.
But a 120-year-old barn in the middle of the far north suburban Prairie Crossing subdivision has become a destination for lovers of early music and is home to a concert series that draws about 100 people per show, who pay $15 each to hear the harpsichord, the lute or the viola da gamba.
“I had never played in a barn before,” said baroque double bassist Jerry Fuller, director of the Chicago-based ensemble Ars Antigua after the group played a set Sunday afternoon to a nearly full house. “I had no idea of the acoustics of a barn. But it works.”
The Byron Colby Barn Early Music Series, which grew out of an attempt to lure customers to the subdivision’s farmers market with music, has evolved into something of a mini-Ravinia, with spectators toting picnic baskets brimming with noshes, wine and beer.
“It’s such a luscious thing to do on a Sunday afternoon,” said Carole Whitcomb after the performance of Ars Antigua with Ensemble Voltaire. “It’s an amazing treat.”
Spectators trudged through the snow under a watery gray sky to the old white barn glowing with candlelight and promising warmth. Inside, 10 rows of 10 chairs, mostly slightly rickety wooden ones, slowly filled with people, who burdened the chairs with their coats before sitting down and uncorking bottles of wine.
At the front of the barn stood a harpsichord, which was brought in the night before to acclimate to the barn, and candelabra with white candles, all lit. When the music began, the hubbub of greeting and chatting disappeared, replaced by music written in Italy and France 300 years ago.
“This is an artistic salon on the prairie,” Fuller said. “This kind of music isn’t done just anywhere.”
Primarily, according to aficionados, this kind of music is performed in churches and performance halls in Chicago, Evanston and Oak Park.
“This is rather unusual,” said Robert Osterlund, founder of the encyclopedic Early MusiChicago Web site.
Prairie Crossing began holding concerts in its barn years ago, bringing in blues musicians, rock bands, folk singers and early-music consorts.
To the great surprise of Prairie Crossing events manager Stan Rosenberg, early music outdrew blues, folk and rock.
“We had 110 people for an early-music concert, We said, whoa, we have got something here,” Rosenberg said. “And what we had was a demand for this kind of music.”
And so three years ago, the early-music series at the Byron Colby Barn was born.
“Never did I dream it would be so successful,” said George Ranney, one of the developers of Prairie Crossing.
Written during the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods, from roughly 1400 to the mid-1700s, early music was completely forgotten for hundreds of years. But in the 20th Century, the early-music movement was born, and musicians began dusting off the many obscure pieces and playing them again, often on replicas of the original instruments.
“What is appealing to me is that it is so fresh. It is so foreign-sounding,” said Osterlund, who especially loves improvisation-rich renaissance and medieval music. “You have 500 years of music to rediscover, so many instruments to rediscover and relearn how to play. There is still music out there in great quantity that has yet to be played.”
In the barn, Ars Antigua with Ensemble Voltaire treated the audience to a “battle of good tastes” between Italian and French baroque composers, punctuating the sonatas and suites with readings of occasionally snarky reviews by critics of the time, which elicited chuckles from the audience.
After the concert, a dozen people mobbed the musicians, wondering about the slightly unfamiliar period instruments and the music.
“It’s surprising. I had no idea there was so much pent-up demand,” said subdivision resident Karin Wisiol, who shared a bottle of Shiraz with her husband during the concert.
Part of the charm, of course, is the setting itself.
“It’s the intimacy of the whole place,” said Prairie Crossing resident Mary Pattison.
The barn, which was built in 1885 by a dairy farmer, originally stood miles away and was taken apart, timber by timber, to be rebuilt in 1996 near one of the subdivision entrances. The developers originally intended the barn to be used as a meeting spot and a “signature building” but soon discovered that it was particularly sharp acoustically.
“It’s warm and resonant and very clear,” Fuller said.
Two more early-music concerts are scheduled in the barn. On Feb. 20, the Metropolis Quartet will play the music of Mozart, Bach and others. And on March 13, Weissduo, which features lutenist Joel Spears, who lives in Prairie Crossing, will play chamber music for flute and lute.
Asked whether someday he will sell out the barn, which seats about 125, Rosenberg said, “My feeling is there is always room in a barn.
“If I were to overfill the capacity for an early-music concert, I would be the envy of music producers all over the country.”
Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune