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Picking Up the Pieces at Chicago String Ensemble

Picking Up the Pieces at Chicago String Ensemble

One year ago, the Chicago String Ensemble appeared to be hanging by a thread following the abrupt departure of its founder and musical director Alan Heatherington and the organization's longtime general manager Mary Jo Deysach. The two were at odds with a hard-nosed board of directors intent on holding down expenses and instituting more stringent business procedures. Though Heatherington refused to comment at the time, many believed the ensemble would soon play its swan song. Deysach now says that the move was "incredibly painful" for Heatherington, who had led the small but well-respected group for 18 years. Today, however, he maintains it was the right thing to do. "The board and I mutually felt it was time for us to go our separate ways," Heatherington says.

Now both Heatherington and the Chicago String Ensemble appear to have landed on their feet. With former board member Rosalie Harris returning to the helm as president, the Chicago String Ensemble is embarking on its 20th anniversary season with a renewed sense of purpose and a new musical director, Allan Lewis, who's also the musical director of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. A guest conductor last season in the wake of Heatherington's departure, Lewis was reportedly the unanimous favorite among board members and players for the music director's job.

Heatherington's tenure at the Chicago String Ensemble was marked by an eclectic repertoire, mixing old and new material, including 47 Chicago debuts and 17 world premieres by living American composers. Lewis says he intends to offer the same variety of modern and classic works. One program next spring will include familiar pieces by Shostakovich and Dvorak as well as a new work by Bosnian composer Dejan Despic called Three Meditations for Cello and String Ensemble. Lewis says it's the kind of work that will draw curious audiences. "Everyone seems to know something about Bosnia, but most people haven't had much contact with the culture in that area," he says.

The Chicago String Ensemble is counting on Lewis to add some spark, but the future of the group may rest on the shoulders of Harris, who was an important force within the organization from 1984 to 1994, which included a term as board president from 1989 to 1992. Heatherington says Harris was a positive influence. "She had a professional image and a strong concept of what the organization should be," he says. Harris left the organization for health reasons, but she claims that the group had lost its sense of purpose. "When I came on the board in 1984 there was a lot of talk about musical vision, but I think all those possibilities had been lost by the time I decided to leave," she says.

Harris says she decided to return to the group earlier this year. Last month she hosted a retreat for board members. A new mission statement was formulated, and priorities for the coming year were put down on paper. "Our committees are recharged," Harris says, calling this upcoming season "a year of renewal." She exhorted board members to open up their own pocketbooks to help reduce a $20,000 deficit. That debt now stands at $5,000, and the ensemble is in the final stages of hiring a new executive director to replace Deysach.

The game plan for the upcoming season indicates the new director will still face a few hurdles. The 1996-'97 operating budget is $143,100, down from $167,000 last year, and the number of concerts next season will drop to 9 from a total of 13 the previous year. But two of next season's concerts will be in larger venues: a 20th anniversary celebration concert in March will be held at the Chicago Historical Society and the season's finale next May will take place at Northwestern's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

Meanwhile, Heatherington and Deysach have regrouped to form a new musical organization called Ars Viva. Heatherington says he doesn't see his new group competing with the Chicago String Ensemble for audiences and funding. "It came out of a larger objective of having an arts organization that addresses my desire to direct an orchestra," he says. The group performed its first concert last May, and Deysach says a full season is planned for 1996-'97 with a budget of around $100,000. Unlike the Chicago String Ensemble, Ars Viva will not have a core group of musicians, but will hire players as needed, depending on the style of music being performed. Heatherington says programming will range from new works by Chicago composers to a Brahms symphony.

Equity Nice 'n' Easy on Hair

As of last week Actors' Equity was ready to tangle with the current revival of Hair. The local chapter of the performers' union was planning to distribute leaflets in front of the Athenaeum Theatre to inform audiences that the production, which opened August 2, was in essence a college show performed by nonunion actors. But now the union has decided to call off its protest, though Equity central regional director Kathryn Lamkey says it will still try to inform the public about the play, which producer Michael Butler imported from the west coast. The show was originally produced at California State University, Fullerton, and the troupe is composed entirely of Cal State students and recent graduates. The top ticket price for Hair is $37.50.

Lamkey says the union's principal concern is the possible negative effect the show might have on the image of Chicago actors and the local theater industry. "We didn't want a lot of national press coming into town for the Democratic National Convention and going to see this Hair and thinking it was an example of what Chicago theater is all about."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of CSE president Rosalie Harris, by David V. Kamba.

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