Like most current chamber ensembles, Chicago’s Spektral Quartet carefully anchors its programs of new music with pieces from the standard repertoire; the theory, I’m guessing, is that the players feel obliged to reward audience members for sitting patiently through difficult, dissonant modern works by offering them a familiar bit of Schubert or Schumann—the same way you’d toss a tasty biscuit to a dog who’s successfully held a sit-stay. But Spektral is better than most at conveying how those earlier pieces fit on the same continuum as the newer ones—often conjuring the sense of disorientation and even danger that their original audiences would have heard in them. For the opening of its new season, however, the Quartet is throwing itself an extra curve by adding a spatial element to its performance. Read the rest of this entry »
Jazz is a collaborative art form, but you can hang out on the scene a long time before you hit a happening where one of the collaborators is a visual artist. When that occurs, odds are the collaborator in question is Lewis Achenbach, who’s spent the past few years turning painting into a performing art by improvising on canvas alongside the city’s most adventurous jazz and new-music players. For Chicago Artists’ Month, Achenbach once again has the good fortune to hook up with Vincent Davis Percussion Plus, an ensemble of topflight free-jazz players. Read the rest of this entry »
By Dennis Polkow
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt turned eighty last month, a milestone which has been celebrated across the music world during this anniversary year. In Chicago, Bella Voce has taken the lead in offering Pärt performances: his “Stabat Mater” last spring and this fall, his “Berliner Messe,” a 1990 work for vocalists and organ which Pärt later revised for string orchestra and chorus.
Bella Voce is no stranger to the music of Pärt, having been chosen by Pärt’s celebrated interpreter and subsequent biographer Paul Hillier to be the choir heard in the North American professional premiere of Pärt’s “St. John Passion”—better known by its short Latin title, “Passio”—back in 1990 when the group was still known as His Majestie’s Clerkes. Read the rest of this entry »
The screamcore reputation of Jake Dibeler, the gutter drag performance artist, lyricist and lead singer of Bottoms, totally precedes him. If the gritty photos of this unique vocalist—writhing and singing on venue floors in pumps and a red wig like a drugged-up mermaid—don’t entice you, then maybe the dreary dance vibes of this electroclash-inspired trio will. In the short amount of time since their “Goodbye” EP release in January, this rather bent art-punk trio has completely swept the Internet and all of New York off their feet. With JD Samson’s stamp of approval and a quick signing to budding label Atlas Chair, the band seems to have adamantly set their pulsating and playful agit-noise toward global domination. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement, but some form of sub-dom subversions will definitely be aroused if you check out Bottoms for Chances Dances’ ten-year anniversary month of festivities and exhibits. Read the rest of this entry »
Chicagoan Nick Mazzarella plays alto sax with the kind of virile swagger that yanks you back through the decades to when this kind of strident, unsentimental sound split the whole goddamn twentieth century clean in two. It’s still surprisingly subversive to modern ears—which is why a lot of people run from this kind of fearlessly improvised jazz; it’s not safe—it’s here to challenge, not comfort. And on its new record, “Ultraviolet,” that’s exactly what Mazzarella’s trio does. The tunes were originally composed for a residency at the late, lamented Curio lounge in 2012, and they form a breathtaking free-jazz suite. All the titles relate to scientific inquiry—from the modern (“Neutron Star”) to the archaic (“Abacus and Astrolabe,” “Luminous Dials”), and from wave theory (the title cut) to paleontology (“Archaeopteryx,” “Fossil”). It’s a pretty clear indication that what these guys are about is straight-up investigation—of rhythm, of tone, of harmony—and that silos like classification aren’t going to get in their way. Read the rest of this entry »
Chicago is blessed with the return of global sensations Ibeyi (pronounced ee-bey-ee), for a second performance in one year. French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, who sing in both Yoruba and English, are the daughters of late Cuban percussionist Miguel “Angá” Diaz of Irakere and Buena Vista Social Club fame. Angá died in 2006 when the twins were only eleven; tragedy stuck again in 2013 when they lost a sister, Yanira. They grew up mostly in Paris and credit their French-Venezuelan mother, a singer, with inspiring their love of West African Yoruba culture (brought to Cuba by slaves in the 1700s). Naomi plays percussion, mixing hip-hop and Afro-Cuban beats on the cajón and Batás, and handles production while Lisa, the primary vocalist, plays piano and concentrates on composition. Read the rest of this entry »
Muti greeted by a street band in Spain, similar to what Mahler imitates in the third movement of his First Symphony/Photo courtesy of www.RiccardoMutiMusic.com
By Dennis Polkow
Riccardo Muti began his Chicago Symphony Orchestra music directorship five years ago in the 2010-11 season, which included the centennial of the death of Gustav Mahler that spring. The CSO did plenty of Mahler symphonies that anniversary year, as would be expected. But Muti conducted none of them.
Instead, Muti chose to reconstruct the final concert that Mahler ever conducted a century before, which was with the New York Philharmonic: it happened to be a program of Italian composers who were contemporaries of Mahler. In fairness to Muti, it did end up being a fascinating program; but of course, it did beg the question of why Muti was not performing any of Mahler’s own music.
Shortly after my asking Muti that very question, an unlabeled package arrived containing an old CD of Muti conducting the Mahler First Symphony done with the Philadelphia Orchestra, recorded when Muti was music director there. It was revelatory on a number of levels, so lyrical, transparent and radiant was the playing. The rich strings sounded as if the piece had been recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic.
Of course, in offering thanks the next time I saw Muti, Mahler inevitably came up again. Since Muti can make Mahler sound so glorious, I wondered, why not do some here, given that he is the music director of what many consider the world’s greatest Mahler orchestra? Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Carly Sioux
One of the problems that comes with being a music critic of a certain age, is that when a young twenty-something artist starts impressing you with similarities to seventies-era acts like The Beatles, David Bowie and T. Rex, you can’t be sure whether it’s because those acts are still that influential, or whether they’re just still influencing you. But after getting deeper into Slim Twig’s new album, “Thank You For Stickin’ With Twig,” it’s pretty clear that the former is the case. Hell, one of his tunes, “A Woman’s Touch,” is actually about The Beatles—or rather, about the role (decisive yet disrespected) of the mop-tops’ women in their success. “The wives became the enemies,” Twig sings, “Of screaming fans who never ceased / While holed up down at Abbey Road / The boys were baring rubber souls / So who wrote the songs? / Who dressed the men? / How did they know what to do then? / It’s the only story told.” The sound recalls the deliberately low-fi, analogue sonics of the Fab Four’s later years, but that feminist angle turns the tune straight-up postmillennial. Read the rest of this entry »
After the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that brought Nepal to its knees this April, the world witnessed an outpouring of humanity’s generosity; and now Chicago will see even more of it, up close. Albatross, one of the top alt-rock bands from hard-hit Kathmandu (they won both Best Performance by a Group or a Duo with Vocals and Best Rock Vocal Performance at the Hits FM Awards in Nepal last year), is now on a tour of ten U.S. cities to raise funds for earthquake relief programs. Read the rest of this entry »