Closing my eyes during Fifth House Ensemble’s “Caught: The Web,” it was easy to believe that the ten other audience members, the quintet, and I were all together in one of Chicago’s more prestigious performance spaces. In reality, though, the plain bleachers of the echoing gym of the Washington Park Fieldhouse were more like the community spaces in which much of the ensemble’s work is conceived, mirroring the performance’s juxtaposition of the low art of common experience and the more rarified air of classical music.
The program consisted of six pieces ranging from early twentieth century composers Erwin Schulhoff and Samuel Barber to contemporary American composers like Chelsea Reisner and Jesse Limbacher, whose works the ensemble premiered in 2012. The movements of each piece were broken apart and reconfigured to follow a narrative projected on a small screen above the performers. The film, shot in a stream of consciousness style, portrayed the life of a fed up, perpetually hungry, shopping-addicted secretary over the course of a week. The music matched the highs and lows of this woman’s life as she navigated eclectic coworkers, overcrowded trains, and the drama of her approaching turn as a bridesmaid.
When the narrator complains that she is starving, images of malnourished children on the screen and a solemn percussive bassoon remind her, and us, that she’s not actually starving. She then proclaims that she has the solution to her problems. The melody slowly ascends in weight as the climactic words on the screen emerge: “Margaritas after work!” When her computer crashes, the music becomes violent, as do the images of people slamming computers against walls.
Within this narrative, the diverse contributors to “Caught: The Web” shone through the set in a cohesive manner. Elements of the story, like the nightmare sequence during the woman’s nap at work, are products of 5HE’s school residency program, in which students are given the experience with the arts programs that schools are cutting in increasing numbers.
A mother of one of the students who participates in the program at Beasley Elementary School in Englewood was nearly moved to tears at the end of the performance. Her feelings captured how the performance’s integration of classical music and modern struggles artfully validated the audience’s everyday experience. “I’m like, I know. It’s all so real.”
Catch the final performance of Fifth House Ensemble’s “Caught: The Web” on Thursday, May 16 at 6:30 at Austin Town Hall, Chicago Park District. More info at fifth-house.com