Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Billy Strayhorn Lived a “Lush Life” Beyond Duke Ellington

Big Band, Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Vocal Music No Comments »
Duke Ellington (left) and Billy Strayhorn

Duke Ellington (left) and Billy Strayhorn

By Dennis Polkow

When Bruce Mayhall Rastrelli first came up with the idea of devoting an entire concert to the music of Billy Strayhorn more than a decade ago, the first question was often, “Billy who?”

“It was for a gay chorus that I directed for eight years in Los Angeles,” recalls Rastrelli, “and they had a tradition of doing single composer concerts: Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman. I wanted to move beyond doing composers that were obvious. I wanted to challenge the chorus and the community with things they didn’t know, specifically jazz, and especially a black composer who was out and gay at a time when that was not at all typical.”

Strayhorn is best known for his near thirty-year association with Duke Ellington, from the time they met in 1938 until Strayhorn’s early death from cancer in 1967 at the age of fifty-one. Often given direct credit, sometimes not, Strayhorn is estimated to have composed and arranged some forty percent of the entire Ellington catalogue and was, as Ellington himself put it in his autobiography, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Sir Andrew Davis Traverses Continents and Genres

Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Photo: Dario Acosta

Photo: Dario Acosta

By Dennis Polkow

“The thing about me is that I haven’t had a lot of jobs,” admits Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis, “but the ones I’ve had, I’ve had for a long time: twelve years in Glyndebourne, seventy-five to eighty-eight in Toronto; the BBC Symphony from eighty-nine to 2000; Chicago since 2000, and now Melbourne since 2013.” Only Glyndebourne and Chicago have been opera-related, the others—including Davis’ most recent post as principal conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra—are orchestral posts.

One fringe benefit of Davis spending so much time in Chicago is that he does get the occasional opportunity to conduct non-operatic repertoire, as he will do this week with superstar Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at a special gala concert.

“I love working with the [Chicago] Symphony. Kissin is rather fussy about conductors and he likes working with me. I did all of the Beethoven concertos with Kissin and the CSO about five or six years ago, all in a week. The first time we worked together was the last year I was with the BBC and we did the Rachmaninoff Two. He did everything that should happen in that concerto but rarely does. Rachmaninoff is extraordinarily complex and contrapuntal but a lot of times people just put down their pedal and it’s a big mush. There was a clarity with him which makes it so much more moving and emotionally much more complex.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Spektral Quartet/Curtiss Hall

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Live Reviews, New Music No Comments »

Spektral Quartet


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 »

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

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, Minimalism, New Music, News and Dish, Shape Singing, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
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

Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, News and Dish, Orchestral No Comments »
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

Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
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

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Rock, Vocal Music No Comments »
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

Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
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 »