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  • Kim Piekos

Rendezvous Arts Music Group Strikes a Chord at Gorton

By Kim Piekos

March of 2020 scarred musicians who had played in the Lake Forest Symphony: not only did the group fold the month before after 63 years, but Covid-19 hit, leaving its musicians with few opportunities to make a living.

Fortunately, professional oboist and former Lake Forest Symphony Players Committee Chair Deb Stevenson had an idea.

“I kept saying to myself, “Why don’t we have this in Chicago?” said Deb Stevenson, a former member of the Lake Forest Symphony who helped found Rendevous Arts.

“The Symphony had a very popular chamber music section, and I wondered: Could we at least save that?” she said.

Years before, Stevenson attended a Chatter Series performance in Albuquerque. She, along with 250 other people, enjoyed listening to professional chamber music, watching a visual artist sketch the performance and socializing with the artists after the performance. Her curiosity was piqued.

“I kept saying to myself, 'Why don’t we have this in Chicago?”'

And then it clicked. “We can have this in Chicago, and we can make that happen now,” she said.

She and a few other former symphony members pooled the Small Business Association loans they received and created Rendezvous Arts that May. Within six weeks Stevenson and her board achieved 501(3)C status and had a home at the Gorton Center.  

“Our first concert in October was everything we dreamt of, except we were only allowed to host 30 masked audience members,” she recalled. Rendezvous launched an online, subscription-based channel called Patreon to enable people to watch the concerts at home. 

Now nearing the end of its fourth season, Rendezvous Arts has expanded its reach under the theme, “Something for Everyone.” Twenty-two  events are held yearly. One featured chamber group performs each month from October through April at three locations over three days: Dixon, Illinois, a chamber music hub, on Wednesday evenings, the Stuart Room at Gorton Center in Lake Forest on Friday evenings and Artifact Events in Ravenswood on Sunday afternoons. Patreon Channel subscribers – who hail from as far away as Ukraine and Scotland -- pay as little as $5 per month.

“One of the things we are most proud of this season is we have created work for 43 Chicago-based musicians and 11 visual artists plus four staff members, amounting to approximately $100,000 in work created,” says Stevenson, who now serves as president and executive director.

The Friday evening crowd at Gorton Center typically numbers 50-80 people.

“Our Gorton audience is loyal and growing, and we are grateful for that,” Stevenson said. “We’re working hard to give people something worth coming out for.”

She noted their hidden agenda is education.

“Chamber music, defined as 13 or fewer musicians, each playing their own part, is meant to be played in intimate settings, and that is what we have created,” Stevenson explained. “There is proximity between musicians, the featured visual artist and our audience, and the musicians share information about each composer and piece before they play. This makes for open dialogue with the audience members and leaves them hungry for more. It’s as much a social event as it is a concert.”

She’s pleased that the audience has noted how the musicians communicate while playing.

“People have told me they are amazed at how musicians can start, stop, slow down and speed up without using words, but with their body language and eye contact,” Stevenson said.

Various kinds of performers have graced the Stuart Room at Gorton this year, including an acoustic guitar duo, a woodwind octet, a jazz combo, traditional Irish instrumentalists, period instrument ensembles, an internationally touring string trio and an all-female string quartet playing Latin American compositions.

“We pair musicians and visual artists that are complementary in some way,” Stevenson said. For example, the March concert featured a trio playing music written by composers who perished in the Holocaust. The trio was paired with an artist who paints in bright colors using smiling faces.

“This is a reminder that even in the toughest of times, there is joy and beauty being created,” Stevenson said.

“Rendezvous Arts has truly brought a wonderful concept to life,” says visual artist Kevin Lahvic whose work was part of the March program. “Aside from the obvious inspirational aspect of their program, I believe that bringing artists, practicing in totally different disciplines together for a single, shared event highlights the vast breadth of human expression and exposes all the work to a wider audience.”

Stevenson feels strongly that they pay the visual artists who attend their events. “Usually, artists have to pay to show their art, but we want them to know they are as valuable as musicians,” she noted. Rendezvous also encourages the artists to sell their art at the events.

Stevenson credits generous sponsors who were quick to fund the organization, including the Lake Forest Symphony Endowment Fund at the Chicago Community Foundation, the Butler Family Foundation, the Buchanon Family Foundation and the Rolek Family Foundation. The Rotary Club of Lake Forest/Lake Bluff  has also sponsored  performances.

Stevenson’s ultimate goal is to nurture talent and spread the joys of the arts.

“Anytime we’re in a situation where people are smiling and happy and having a good time, good things happen for the musicians and for the audience,” she said.

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