Reposted article written by Samuel Thompson
TRAILBLAZER: one word to describe Renée Baker. The words “polyproductive” and “prolific” can also be used to describe Ms. Baker, founder and music director of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. During the final months of the 2012/2013 season Ms. Baker conducted the premieres of three original compositions inspired by the life and work of Mark Rothko and recently received the Charles E. Walton Black Music Month Award from Chicago’s Vivian G. Harsh Society.
Renee Baker is a very active figure in the cultural life of Chicago, having been a member of the Chicago Sinfonietta since 1987 and having appeared as soloist, chamber musician and orchestral musician throughout Chicago, including a Ravinia debut as viola soloist in Strauss’ Don Quixote, partnering with John Sharp, cellist of Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In tandem with her career performing “traditional classical music”, Ms. Baker has been making great strides both as a conductor and as a composer of modern music.
Ms. Baker is a person who maintains a deep sense of reverence to those who were influential in her development as an artist. “I am incredibly grateful to Paul Freeman for serving as a stalwart mentor to me as a conductor, composer and musician,” she said. “I was groomed over 25 years in the Chicago Sinfonietta – Paul first hired me as a violist in the orchestra in 1987 when it was founded, and was the first conductor both to ask for and premiere two symphonies that I had written.”
Those premieres include the October 2010 world premiere of Ms. Baker’s “Sundown’s Promise” - a thirteen section work inspired by the Japanese rice harvest and spotlighted by Japanese Taiko drums – and the May 2011 premiere of “Divertimento Notte blu” for Orchestra and six jazz soloists. Commissioned by the Chicago Sinfonietta, both works received great critical acclaim, and the May 2011 premiere of “Divertimento Notte blu” marked another high point in Ms. Baker’s steadily growing career, as it was in that performance that she made her Symphony Center debut as a conductor of the Chicago Sinfonietta.
To have been the recipient of such a tremendous opportunity from a mentor was indescribable for Ms. Baker, as both premieres took place during Maestro Freeman’s final season as music director of the orchestra that he founded. Symbolically, one could refer to that season as Mr. Freeman’s “passing the baton” to an emerging visionary. It was also during the 2010/2011 season that Ms. Baker was hailed as
“the latest AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) visionary” by Downbeat Magazine.
Renee Baker is definitely riding a wave, becoming one of the influential and important proponents of modern music of the twenty-first century. In recent years, new music ensembles including Washington DC’s Great Noise Ensemble, the International Contemporary Ensemble and three-time Grammy Award winning Eighth Blackbird (also based in Chicago) have captured the attention of concertgoers and musicians worldwide. Renee Baker and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project are soon to join the ranks of the aforementioned ensembles, as CMOP is now positioned to establish a true international presence and reputation the go-to orchestra both for new music and for composers of color.
The reverence that Ms. Baker holds for her mentors is in tandem with her insatiable curiosity. “About seven years ago I started looking at both the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the American Composers Orchestra, as I wondered if both those groups and orchestras that were programming ‘traditional classical music’ were attracting audiences for modern music.” Continuing, she shared that in the formative years of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project she purposefully sought out people who were at the top of their game and who had an authentic interest in what she was trying to learn. “These people, some of the most foremost jazz and creative musicians - including composer and MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient Anthony Braxton and flutist/composer and Doris Duke artist Nicole Mitchell - were able to answer the questions that I had.”
The Chicago Modern Orchestra Project is a special ensemble in many ways. “I believe in inclusion,” Renee said, “and many of these people are people that I have been grooming since 1991. We have managed to marry the best of traditional classical musicians and the best of the avant-garde jazz players in Chicago, and we’re rapidly increasing our reach outside of the United States. CMOP’s roster includes musicians who are also members of the Chicago Sinfonietta, and freelance with the Chicago Lyric Opera, Chicago Symphony, Chicago Opera Theatre, Joffrey Ballet Orchestra and many other fine ensembles. This is why we can do absolutely authentic presentations of classical music, jazz and modern concert music. I am able to get a flavor that most ensembles are not able to.” With CMOP, Ms. Baker has shown herself to be a leader in developing true orchestral diversity, as no other orchestra in the United States can boast the authentic inclusiveness of the ensemble in both musical expertise and demographic: in addition to being an awesome mix of classical and jazz musicians, CMOP membership is a true reflection of our nation’s ethnic diversity.
“During our first season, we presented a total of fifteen concerts including both large ensemble concerts and smaller community concerts. The ensemble has performed at both Dominican University and the South Shore Cultural Center, and our first ‘laboratory’ was held at Velvet Lounge.” Ms. Baker’s belief in inclusion pervades the work of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, as CMOP has since its inception premiered an average of ten works each season, including compositions by Ms. Baker and others received through the ensemble’s open score project. “It is truly wonderful not only to have created an opportunity to continuously hone my skills as a composer, but also to constantly introduce fresh music to our audience.”
Ms. Baker’s reach as composer has grown steadily over many years. Her works have been performed by groups including the Chicago Sinfonietta Chamber Ensemble, Southeast Symphony
(Los Angeles), DanceWright Project (San Francisco), Great Black Music Ensemble /AACM(premiered in Umbria, Italy, 2009) and presented both by the Joffrey Ballet Chamber Series and the Museum of Contemporary Art/Chicago. Ms. Baker continues to secure performances of her works both nationally and internationally, including the upcoming 2014 premiere of “blu Samsara” in Zolle (Netherlands) and the anticipated premiere of “Sunyata” in 2015.
As they stand on the precipice of tremendous growth, everything is definitely open both for Renee Baker and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project – a woman and an organization that stand for growth, discovery, inclusion, and true openness.