Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Bella Voce celebrates Arvo Pärt’s Eightieth Birthday by Looking Bach

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Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt

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 »

Offbeat: Muti Makes a Gift of Mahler to the Entire City

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Muti greeted by a street band in Spain similar to what Mahler imitates in the third movement of his First Symphony. Photo courtesy of

Muti greeted by a street band in Spain, similar to what Mahler imitates in the third movement of his First Symphony/Photo courtesy of

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 »

Offbeat: Sinatra Jr. Is Perfectly Frank on the Man Behind the Legend

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Frank Sinatra Jr.

Frank Sinatra Jr.

By Dennis Polkow

“There is a lot of traffic out there in this kind of show for this year,” admits Frank Sinatra Jr. on the myriad of Sinatra salutes happening throughout 2015, the centennial of his father’s birth. “Many, many people have taken it upon themselves to do this kind of thing. They can, of course, recreate the music. But because this is the one-hundredth anniversary, I felt it was very important that people also learn something about the individual.

“We’re no longer talking about a man who is a famous performer, a famous movie star. Now we’re talking about somebody who is being time-honored with a century of recognition. For that reason, I think it’s time to know that person. We already know his accomplishments, now let’s concentrate on the person.”

From the beginning of his own career some fifty years ago, Frank Jr. always performed “at least a song or two of Sinatra,” as he calls the public figure, “but I worked hard to have my own identity.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Grant Park’s Carlos Kalmar Craves the New, Whether in Music or in Life

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Carlos and Raffaela Kalmar with newborn son Luca Pedro/Photo courtesy of Carlos Kalmar

Carlos and Raffaela Kalmar with newborn son Luca Pedro. Photo Courtesy of Carlos Kalmar

By Dennis Polkow

“He’s such a joy,” says proud father Carlos Kalmar of his son Luca Pedro, who was born on the last day of 2014. “It’s really great, I’m very happy. I don’t know if having a newborn makes you a bit more soft, that is for others to say. But it adds a component to life in general that is somehow reflected in your work when the occasion is given. In music, sometimes the depth of what we do may get even deeper. But who am I to judge?”

Kalmar has two children from a previous marriage and even a grandson. “I have started over,” he laughs. “I have two daughters who are twenty-seven and twenty-five. When you’re older, or to some extent older, I think the influence of children on you is amazing. I’m not talking about grandchildren, they are fantastic: I have one, but I don’t see him very often because he lives in Europe. But to have a child of your own when you’re older changes some things. And it’s all for the better.”

Renewal remains a virtual archetype for Kalmar, who thrives on new challenges and on learning, performing and introducing audiences to new pieces. For the closing weekend of the Grant Park Music Festival, for instance, Kalmar will conduct the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus with guest vocal soloists in a rare complete performance of Elgar’s oratorio “The Kingdom.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: “Halo” Composers Collaborate with Paul McCartney

Ambient, Blues, Chicago Artists, Festivals, Folk, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Rock, Singer-Songwriter, Vocal Music No Comments »
Paul McCartney, Martin O'Donnell, Michael Salvatori

Paul McCartney, Martin O’Donnell, Michael Salvatori

By Dennis Polkow

Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori have been friends back to their college days in the 1970s when they were in rival bands in the western suburbs. “We’ve always been very competitive with one another,” Salvatori recalls. “Marty came in to record five songs with his band, so of course, I had to write better songs and record those as well.”

While Salvatori was working for his father’s printing company, O’Donnell was painting houses to put himself through music school. “They were shooting a television commercial and Marty was painting the set. The director found out that he was a composer and offered him five hundred dollars if he would write some music for it. I had just taken out a loan for a basement recording studio setup and Marty called up and said, ‘If you let me record there, I’ll split everything with you fifty-fifty.’ We put ourselves out there on a handshake and collaborated on the commercial as O’Donnell-Salvatori, like Lennon-McCartney. It has been that way ever since.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: James Conlon Bids Farewell to Ravinia, Says “Si” to Italy

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James Conlon / Photo Courtesy of Ravinia Festival

James Conlon/Photo: Ravinia Festival

By Dennis Polkow

“After I became music director eleven years ago,” says Ravinia Festival music director James Conlon, “it was so interesting how many people I would meet around the country, or Americans I would meet in Europe, that would say, ‘You know? I heard my first concerts at Ravinia.’ I started to think that everybody grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and somehow or another moved to another place in the world. It is astounding how many people of all ages were formed there, from twenty-year-olds to eighty-year-olds, and how many people Ravinia has been able to reach in its way and introduce classical music to them. Of course, the trump card of the Chicago Symphony is the best way you can do that. It was very striking to me and I am very proud to be a part of that tradition and process and hope it will continue on forever.”

Nonetheless, Conlon announced last August that the 2015 season would be his last as Ravinia music director, and that 2016 would also end his music directorship of the Cincinnati May Festival after thirty-six years. Instead, he will become the first American to ever become principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai in Turin, Italy. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Kenji Bunch Makes Music From the Inside Out

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Kenji Bunch / Photo: Erica Lyn

Kenji Bunch/Photo: Erica Lyn

By Dennis Polkow

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many composers have been attracted to the viola,” says violist and composer Kenji Bunch. Like Bach, who noted that he enjoyed playing viola because he was always “in the middle of the harmony,” Bunch observes that “it lets you experience music from the inside out and you really get a unique perspective on how things are put together.

“If you sing alto or tenor in a choir rather than soprano or bass, those are the hard parts to hear and be able to pick out the right notes for those funky inner lines rather than the more obvious top or bottom lines. I think the viola really finds you. It’s suited for a certain kind of personality that is interested in more offbeat things, literally offbeat things.”

Since the viola is a darker-colored instrument with less brilliance than its more popular cousin the violin, “we don’t have a lot of traditional repertoire written for our instrument, which means we violists usually gain exposure to twentieth century music a lot sooner than violinists or cellists do. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: From Lt. Dan Band to Symphonic Salutes, Kimo Williams Serves Those Who Served

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Kimo Williams (left) and Gary Sinise with Lt. Dan Band

Kimo Williams (left) and Gary Sinise with Lt. Dan Band

By Dennis Polkow

“When I tell people I’m a Vietnam Vet, I hear, ‘Thank you for your service,’ ” laments composer and guitarist Kimo Williams. “There’s a time, there’s a place for saying that. It just rolls off of people like a painful cliché and you’re forced to react or respond. Do you know what my service was? Do you know what I did? Hear my story, then if you want to thank me, fine.”

Williams has spent a lifetime of service to those who have been in service, starting with his own stint in the military that brought him to Vietnam in 1969. “I was a combat engineer and my job was to provide supplies to fix the dossiers that would clear land mines. Two friends of mine and I had decided one morning that we were going to see ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that night. It got to be the end of the day and I’m getting the popcorn but was told, ‘They didn’t make it.’ That was the first time that it hit me. I was so naïve I said, ‘What do you mean?’ It hit me hard, this was forever. That’s it? I went to the movie and you do continue on. It numbs you.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Ars Viva’s Alan Heatherington Trades His Baton for A Cross

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Gayle and Alan Heatherington

Gayle and Alan Heatherington

By Dennis Polkow

More often than not, performing arts organizations tend to cease operations for insufficient funding, declining audiences or both. How then to explain last month’s stunning announcement that after twenty years, with its extraordinary aesthetic vision fully intact, its operations solvent and its audiences supportive and enthusiastic, the 2014-15 season would be the final one ever for the Ars Viva Orchestra?

Coming onstage with his wife, Ars Viva executive director Gayle Heatherington, at his side, the organization’s founder and music director Alan Heatherington postponed his customary illuminating introductory remarks about the music about to be performed.

“All good things come to an end,” he said instead, “all great things come to an end. How many of you have had a favorite restaurant that closed?” By now, audience members had become uneasy with suspense, so Heatherington immediately broke the tension by getting right to the point: “So we are here together to announce that the May concert will be the final concert of Ars Viva,” he declared to audience gasps. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Lang Lang Dresses Up and Down for Chicago, Sixties Rockers Hold Summit for Musician’s Musician

Blues, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Country, Folk, Folk-rock, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Prog-rock, Psychedelic, R&B, Rock, Singer-Songwriter, Soul No Comments »
Lang Lang  Photo: Neale Haynes

Lang Lang

By Dennis Polkow

Although Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang is calling from London, where he’s just given a recital at Royal Albert Hall, he is thinking ahead to Chicago. “I need to buy a new suit, I had my big breakthrough there,” he recalls, a reference to when, at conductor Christoph Eschenbach’s encouragement, he stepped in as a last-minute, unknown replacement for an indisposed Andre Watts at a 1999 Ravinia Festival Chicago Symphony Orchestra Gala, and became an overnight sensation at the ripe old age of seventeen.

Eschenbach, then Ravinia music director, was a mentor to Lang Lang, as was then-CSO music director Daniel Barenboim, so that Chicago was like a second home. He was the first artist to offer a piano recital at the Civic Opera House in 2012, and was so impressed with the sound of the venue, that he returns there this month. “When you see such a big hall, you always worry about, ‘what is the sound like?’ But it has perfect sound. I remember last time, I was playing Mozart, it was so beautiful, so precise, so intimate. It’s a miracle to see such a big space have such an intimate sound.” Read the rest of this entry »