Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Preview: Riccardo Muti & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Spring Season

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Riccardo Muti rehearsing Civic Orchestra, April 2013, Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti rehearsing Civic Orchestra, April 2013, Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti’s spring residency goes for two weeks this season, but what a jam-packed and extraordinary period of music-making it looks to be. This first week program includes pianist/conductor Mitsuko Uchida, who last week made her annual Chicago Symphony Orchestra appearance conducting from the piano. Not easy to conduct Robert Schumann from the piano, however, so Muti will be her collaborator for the Schumann Piano Concerto. The centerpiece of the program will be the Schubert “Great” Ninth Symphony, a work that Schumann championed posthumously after Schubert’s death at age thirty-one.

Muti’s idea of a day off that first weekend is to lead the Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra of the CSO that is marking its ninety-fifth anniversary this season, in an open rehearsal of movements from Prokofiev’s ballet suites for “Romeo and Juliet” on Sunday evening. This is a favorite piece of Muti’s and he has a lot to say about how various movements should sound, particularly as they relate to the emotions reflected in Shakespeare’s narrative. To watch him do so with an attentive audience of young musicians working to give him what he asks for is to experience a passing of the torch of the highest order. It also offers a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on the rehearsal techniques of one of the great conductors set to a basic level, a rare and wonderful deconstruction of the art of conducting. Tickets are free but must be ordered and demand is always high. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Murray Perahia Recital & Master Class/Northwestern University

Chamber Music, Classical No Comments »
Photo: Felix Broede

Photo: Felix Broede


A Murray Perahia recital is a wonderful and increasingly rare thing to behold. Prior to his appearance in the fall of 2012 at Symphony Center, it had been several years since the celebrated pianist—a Chicago favorite during the Solti years because of his frequent collaborations with the late Chicago Symphony music director—had played here. Perahia had agreed to substitute for an ailing Maurizio Pollini in April of 2011, but Perahia himself ended up canceling, feeling that he had not sufficiently recovered from a hand injury that had sidelined him completely from a 2010 tour that was to have included Chicago.

This time around, Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music is hosting Perahia, winner of the school’s biennial Lane Prize in Piano Performance, at its Evanston campus. One of the conditions of that prize and its $50,000 stipend is that the winner spend two to three non-consecutive weeks in residency at the Bienen School and engage in master classes, chamber music coaching and lectures. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Made to Love Him: Celebrating Love” by Nhojj

Chicago Artists, Indie Pop, Jazz, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Vocal Music 1 Comment »


On an album comprised mostly of well-known standards (save for one original composition), Chicago-based singer-songwriter Nhojj celebrates the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships in the United States and abroad. “I am deeply grateful,” he writes in the liners, “to be living in a time when an album celebrating same-gender love could be released and even applauded.”

The album opens with a pared-down version of “Over The Rainbow” done solely with the accompaniment of Marcelo Cardozo’s electric guitar. Nhojj’s vocal range resembles that of the late Michael Jackson–he has the ability to reach low notes but mostly sings using a higher register, approaching each song in a different way. On India.Arie’s “He Heals Me,” he takes more of an R&B approach, taking advantage of the full band behind him, while on tunes like the George & Ira Gershwin classic “Our Love Is Here To Stay” he sings with a quiet bossa-like sensibility. Nhojj also reinvents Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” going for a playful samba-tinged groove without missing out on any of the title’s double entendre. Read the rest of this entry »

Dialogue: Muti on Schubert and the Band Chicago

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By Dennis Polkowfranz-schubert

It is a subzero late Tuesday afternoon and Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have just completed the first day’s rehearsal of Sollima’s Double Cello Concerto. (The piece would receive its world premiere later in the week.) The composer, also a soloist in the piece, is backstage, as is cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As are members of the rock group Chicago, about to complete their first-ever two-concert run with the CSO, conducted by Richard Kaufman.

Despite this odd musical assemblage, inside Muti’s office, the discussion is on his decision to place a CSO spotlight on Schubert for the 2014 season. With so much Verdi and some Wagner having been done by the Chicago Symphony for both composers’ bicentennial years in 2013, it may seem a bit odd that 2014 brings a CSO focus on Schubert despite there being no round-number anniversary.

“You know, generally I don’t like anniversaries,” says Muti, pouring a bottle of sparkling coffee, which he also offers to his quizzical guest. “If it’s a very famous composer, such as Verdi or Wagner, they are performed anyway. The problem with the lesser-known composers is that you have an anniversary and then forget about them the rest of the time. Anniversaries can be important when the performances add something to the comprehension of the composer or when musicologists write something interesting about them.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Maria Rita/City Winery

Bossa Nova, Jazz, Pop, Samba, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »


Brazilian singer Maria Rita built her career doing her best to be outside the shadow of her late mother Elis Regina, a legendary performer in her own right whose career was cut short by a cocaine overdose. It was not an easy task, since Rita’s voice is incredibly similar to her mother’s. Over the years, she stayed away from Regina’s material while making inventive, jazz-inspired albums accompanied by a simple trio of piano, acoustic bass and drums (the exception was 2007’s “Samba Meu,” which was recorded with various percussive instruments added to the band.)

It was not until 2012 that she finally agreed to work on a project with Regina’s music in commemoration of the thirty year anniversary of her passing. “Viva Elis” was originally planned to be a limited five-performance engagement, but due to public demand it later evolved into a national tour and a CD and DVD entitled “Redescobrir.” The album covers her mother’s greatest hits played in arrangements close to the original recordings (the audience is heard cheering at the opening chords of tunes like “Como Nossos Pais” and “Águas de Março”) while some of the lesser-known songs were given a completely different treatment under the musical direction of her brother, arranger and producer João Marcelo Bôscoli. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Contempo/Logan Center

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical No Comments »
eighth blackbird, Photo by Luke Ratray

eighth blackbird/Photo: Luke Ratray


Chamber music carries its history wherever it goes. It’s right there in the genre tag—the chamber in question belonging to medieval palaces affluent enough to afford commissioned musicians, yet preferring their entertainers in a slimmed-down setting, showcases held in the more private confines of the castle’s smaller quadrant in lieu of a performance in the great hall. The modern audience can sympathize: no doubt many a listener has been subjected to the strenuous demands of great hall upkeep. Forsaking flippantry, the foremost task for contemporary classical musicians is to bridge the gap between their rich musical tradition and the working-man’s modesty. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Mahler Ninth & Stravinsky “Elegy for JFK”/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Artists, Classical, Orchestral No Comments »
Photo: Mahler Death Mask

Photo: Mahler Death Mask


After his mammoth Eighth Symphony, Mahler composed “Das Lied von der Erde” and originally subtitled it a symphony. But given that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a Ninth Symphony, Mahler superstitiously refused to place that ominous number on the work and felt that he had somehow cheated fate as a result.

Ironically, Mahler would go on to write a Ninth, and even an un-orchestrated Tenth Symphony, which he would not live to complete. While “Das Lied” is really more of an orchestral song cycle than a symphony, the symphony that Mahler did complete after “Das Lied” and actually did affix the fateful number “Nine” to reflects a resignation of the acceptance of death despite enjoying every last moment of life. The Ninth is an immensely personal statement, as the composer had recently lost a daughter and had himself been recently diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. Like the finale of “Das Lied,” the finale of the massive, conflicted and personal journey of the Ninth fades into existential nothingness and remains a pivotal symphonic statement, culminating as it does the Romantic era of the nineteenth century as well as serving as a precursor of the twentieth-century music that would follow. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Reviews: New Takes on Holiday Classics

Big Band, Holiday Music, Jazz, Orchestral, Pop, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »

nnennafreelonandjohnbrowIt’s that time of year again, when artists of pretty much every genre do everything possible to grab your attention with new recordings of holiday classics. From major stars like Kelly Clarkson to obscure indie bands—everybody wants a piece of the holiday action. Last year, my roundup contained quite a few compilations and original releases, but this time I will keep it short and point out two favorites that came across my desk during this joyous season.

First on the list is Grammy-nominated jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon, whose “Christmas” collection features familiar favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” but man, does she swing those tunes, freely improvising around the melodies with the help of the John Brown Big Band, who expertly add their own nuanced grooves. This is not your traditional singer-backed-by-a-big-band disc. In tracks like “Spiritual Medley,” the arrangements are quite subtle, while things get hot with Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” and even “Silent Night,” is subjected to a Gospel treatment. The album closes with a New Orleans take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” that immediately gets your feet tapping. Read the rest of this entry »

Britten Centennial Culmination: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Performs “War Requiem”

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Conductor Charles Dutoit

Conductor Charles Dutoit

Surprisingly, the centennial anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, which is November 22, has received nary a nod from either Lyric Opera or Chicago Opera Theater. That is particularly odd given that Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis is one of Britten’s most stalwart ambassadors and also how paramount Britten figured in during former general director Brian Dickie’s tenure at COT.

Nonetheless, Britten has been celebrated by many other local institutions this fall; most notably, there have been two full-blown Britten festivals concentrating on his chamber music.That leaves the single most important local Britten centennial event to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is performing his large-scale “War Requiem” this week. Given the forces involved, this is not a work very often performed. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “After Blue” by Tierney Sutton

Jazz, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »


The music of Joni Mitchell has been praised by critics throughout the years for its lyrical beauty and musicality, and lately her songs have re-emerged as jazz standards, most notably with Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters” (Verve, 2007), the first jazz album to be named “Album of the Year” by the Grammy Awards since “Getz/Gilberto” (Verve, 1965) four decades earlier.

West Coast vocalist Tierney Sutton, already on a run of theme-based albums, decided to do her own take on Mitchell’s music, and for this project she did not work with her longtime band. Instead, she worked with several musicians—most notably Peter Erskine, a drummer featured on many of Mitchell’s discs. Read the rest of this entry »