For 15 years, Baltimore’s Evolution Contemporary Music has showcased new sounds. Here’s how they do it.
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
Oct 07, 2019 | 5:00 AM
If you go to enough concerts in your life, you’ll notice that even the fairly good ones start to blur together.
The shows that occupy a crystalline spot in my memory have one thing in common: They have an “I didn’t know you could do that” quality. I don’t mean that in the sense of being stunned by a particular performer or piece of music; rather, the occasion, somehow, reshaped my ideas about the artistic possibilities of live music.
As the Evolution Contemporary Music Series approaches its fifteenth season (launching October 15, with a concert featuring the music of Tariq Al-Sabir), I feel compelled to share how this series made such an impression on me as a young musician — and how I feel it has continued to set the bar: not just for what concerts can do, but how they can make you feel.
In early 2008, I was 18 years old and a senior in high school in Annapolis. That school year, I had begun driving up to Baltimore to take composition lessons at the Peabody Preparatory with a doctoral student and teacher there named Judah Adashi.
I knew that I wanted a life in music and art, but I had vague ideas about what form my plans would ultimately take. Despite my studies, it had barely occurred to me that writing concert music was something that people still did. Most of the classical music I knew and loved had been written by people who were no longer alive.
As part of my lessons, Adashi invited me to a concert series he had launched in recent years called the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, which devoted itself exclusively to the works of living composers. So on a cold evening in January, I found myself standing in line to enter an old townhouse on Charles Street with a large bow window and a sign that read “An Die Musik” (a reference to the Franz Schubert ode of the same name, which simply means “to music”).
Inside, I made my way upstairs to a dimly lit room stuffed with musty, upholstered armchairs. The space looked like a cross between a chapel and a grandmother’s sitting room — and it felt that way, too. It was packed with people who were chatting eagerly about the pieces on the program, all of which were unfamiliar to me. We would even be witnessing a world premiere.
I had never heard a world premiere. I had also never been to a concert of classical music that seemed as much like a gathering of friends as a formal performance. We were not there to pat ourselves on the back for admiring time-tested classics, but to enjoy instrumental (and occasionally electronic) music for the living art that it was — one concerned with discovery, with the new, and with uniting and energizing people.
Twelve years later, I find myself holding my concert experiences to a standard that I believe was set by Evolution: Are they both artistically daring and unpretentious? Do they care about fostering a sense of community as well as presenting high quality performances?
I wonder, too, what it is about Evolution that has allowed it to endure and consistently pack its venue, even as other series and initiatives (many of them excellent) have arisen and dissipated in its lifetime.
Judah Adashi founded the Evolution Contemporary Music Series in 2005 to satisfy a desire for “something that was dedicated just to music of living composers.” At the time, he said, “the terms ‘new music’ and ‘contemporary music’ were being used to refer to concerts featuring music from mostly the 60s and 70s.”
He noted that the Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits Series, launched in New York in 1999, served as an inspiration: These were evenings exclusively devoted to the work of one composer, and, over the years, Adashi thinks that “this is more the direction the [Evolution] series has gone.”
He recalled a 2013 show featuring John Luther Adams — the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who has spent the majority of his career living in Alaska and working simultaneously as an environmental activist — as a “turning point.”
“It was the beginning of thinking of what an evening with a person who happens to be an artist can look like,” said Adashi. “It’s a concept album, not a compilation disc.”
To that end, some of the biggest names in new music have graced the stage at An Die Musik: other Pulitzer Prize-winning composers like Caroline Shaw and Julia Wolfe; New Yorker music critic Alex Ross; hot-ticket artists like Jessie Montgomery and Missy Mazzoli.
Their presence — and the unique opportunity for audiences to immerse themselves in their work — has helped Evolution satisfy another mission: to make Baltimore a “destination” for contemporary music in the way of cultural hubs like New York and Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, these guest artists are equally immersed in the musical life of Baltimore, coaching artists, performing themselves and sticking around for after-parties at The Bun Shop.
That Evolution has stuck around for 15 years feels like a particular accomplishment, because the artistic scene around it has changed dramatically. Evolution is no longer one of the only initiatives in the city devoted to truly modern classical music. There are a lot of them: Symphony Number One, the Peabody Modern Orchestra and the collective Mind on Fire are just a few.
The composer featured in Evolution’s upcoming concert on October 15, Tariq Al-Sabir, was also a student of Adashi’s18
. Al-Sabir has gone on to establish himself as a lauded multi-genre composer and performer, and he’s also been a consistent collaborator.
Junior Bach, which provides private composition lessons to local high schools and of which Adashi is the director, commissioned Al-Sabir to write a piece for their tenth anniversary in 2017; that piece, “Homesick,” became the first movement of a longer song cycle called “#UNWANTED” that received its full premiere in New York earlier this year.
Al-Sabir describes the cycle as a multimedia project that explores issues like finding home, what it means to be black and online with social media platforms, and how bigotry and racism can manifest through new technologies.
“Homesick” later made an appearance on another of Adashi’s projects — the annual Rise Bmore concert which offers a free evening of music and art in honor of the anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death.
For Al-Sabir, it’s a particular honor to open the season. He, too, remembered Evolution as an “outlet,” something that “was really revered when I was in school. It was one of those things where if you had a busy schedule, you’d still go.”
Now, Al-Sabir’s concert is the can’t-miss event. An evening of his music will kick off Evolution Contemporary Music Series’ fifteenth season Oct. 15 at An Die Musik, 409 N. Charles Street, Baltimore. The program features selections from Al-Sabir’s song cycle “#UNWANTED” along with pieces commissioned Autism Advocacy Project and other funk-inspired songs.
Tickets start at $10 and you can find out more at evolutionseries.org. Stick around for the wine reception — and the after-party at The Bun Shop.
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.