In a space considered a treasure the world over, with programming that fulfills a dream for an Oak Park couple, performed by and for this community — that is the newly revived Chamber Music Series presented by the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation (UTRF) at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple.
While there was a concert series for approximately forty years, according to UTRF executive director Heidi Ruehle-May, it ended in 2013.. A major restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural icon closed Unity Temple to visitors from 2015 to 2017. The space, which made UNESCO’s World Heritage list in July, was ripe for programming.
“A lot of people were asking if we were going to bring [the series] back and there is a lot of interest in attending concerts here,” Ruehle-May said. “When I wanted to start a chamber series, I needed some artistic directors.”
A perfect fit was found in two local musicians with world-class talent.
“As musicians, you move to a place and always look around and wonder how you can bring music into the community,” said MingHuan Xu, violinist and artistic director of the Chamber Music Series. “I knew this was going to be a dream come true for us because we had this idea for so many years.”
For the series’ first concert, Xu and her husband Winston Choi performed as Duo Diorama, a pairing formed before the two were married — in fact, it was music and Xu’s nurturing music teacher that brought them together. Now besides performing together, they also both teach at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA). They live in Oak Park with their 7-year-old twins.
As music directors of the Chamber Music Series, they cull talent from their contacts on the music scene.
The upcoming Nov. 16 concert features The Cavatina Duo — flautist Eugenia Moliner and guitarist Denis Azabagic. The married couple lives in River Forest.
“Chamber music happens in a more intimate setting,” Xu said. “Audiences feel a lot more engaged because they are sitting close to the musicians and feel the power and impact more strongly than sitting 50 rows out, so they have a lot more direct communication with the performers on stage.” Each concert is followed by a reception with the musicians present.
The Holiday Concert in December features The Oak Park String Academy and The Chicago Consort. Although not a chamber concert, it offers an alternative for those seeking variety in concert choices, Xu said.
February’s concert features students at a different level. Musicians from CCPA will perform solos and in small chamber groups. “Even though they are still in school, some are totally ready for the professional world,” Xu said.
A highlight in 2020 is the commemoration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. UTRF is celebrating with its April concert — a five-member chamber group that includes performers from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera Orchestra playing an all-Beethoven program. Four performers won’t travel far — Oak Parkers Dennis Michel, bassoon; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano; and married couple Susan Warner, clarinet, and David Griffin, horn.
The season concludes in May with the Avalon String Quartet. Three of the four members hail from Oak Park — Anthony Devroye, and Marie Wang and Blaise Magniere, who are married. Duo Diorma will join the performance, with Choi bringing his arrangement of an Astor Piazzolla piece to the mix.
“Acoustically speaking, for classical music it’s fantastic,” Xu said of performing at Unity Temple. “As musicians, we can stretch our colors and dynamics to their extremes and the hall carries them all, meaning you can hear when it’s full and rich, but you can also hear when it’s … soft and sensitive.”
Besides the Chamber Series, UTRF holds community, educational and performing arts events, and organizes tours.
Ruehle-May said “as much as the strong congregation is able to enjoy this space that is theirs, we want other people in the community to enjoy it as well.”
See the Cavatina Duo, Saturday, Nov. 16, 7 p.m., $30; $25, UTRF members. Chamber Music Series passes (five shows): $90; $75, members. 875 Lake St., Oak Park. Combined series pass with Henry Fogel Presents at Nineteenth Century Club (eight shows total): $160; $140, for members. Tickets/more: utrf.org/chamber-music-series.