Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Record Review: “From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project” by Ann Hampton Callaway

Chicago Artists, Jazz, Vocal Music No Comments »

callawaysassy300RECOMMENDED

On her live tribute to Sarah Vaughan recorded at New York’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the Chicago-born singer, composer and arranger (known by the general public for the theme of the popular sitcom “The Nanny”) assembled a topnotch band formed by  Ted Rosenthal (piano), Dean Johnson (bass), Tim Horner (drums), Randy Sandke (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Dick Oatts (saxes and flute). The repertoire included tunes that Vaughan recorded throughout her long career.

The disc opens after a brief introduction with a lively rendition of Al Hoffman’s “I’m Gonna Live ‘Till I Die,” which features a lengthy, highly inspired solo from Sandke (incidentally, Hoffman was the composer of “Bear Down, Chicago Bears”). Steven Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” is played with great dramatic flair, a little reminiscent of Barbra Streisand’s version. Also notable are Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” performed in a downtempo bossa style and Adler/Rose “Whatever Lola Wants,” a sexy blues-tinged number that showcases the vocalist’s improvisations, while George Gershwin’s classic ballad “Someone To Watch Over Me” features its often-ignored introduction. Read the rest of this entry »

Orchestral Maneuvers: Riccardo Muti and the CSO’s New Season

Chicago Artists, Classical, Orchestral No Comments »
Photo: RiccardoMutiMusic.com

Photo: RiccardoMutiMusic.com

By Dennis Polkow

On the final day of his summer residency, a sunglasses-clad, informally dressed Riccardo Muti is standing in his hotel lobby texting on what he calls a “prehistoric” cell phone. “This is very old: Neanderthal man used this,” he says. “I received a smart phone from my children, but every time I touch it, it does different things and whatever I am doing, disappears. It was a disaster.”

As it turned out—but not revealed at the time—Muti had just met with Jeff Alexander, the man who would be named the new Chicago Symphony Orchestra president, and was in a very upbeat mood.

That Muti, who turned seventy-three in July and who is beginning his fifth season as music director—the last of his original contract—has signed a second five-year contract that will take his music directorship through 2020 is, of course, a huge coup for Chicago. “I have changed [the orchestra], but they have also changed me! We still have a lot to do. They have changed their spirit. It is so wonderful to go to a rehearsal so relaxed and happy.” Read the rest of this entry »

Time-Tested: Composer William Bolcom Returns to Grant Park with a new “Millennium”

Classical, Interviews No Comments »
Photo: Peter Smith

Photo: Peter Smith

By Dennis Polkow

The final week of the Grant Park Music Festival’s eightieth anniversary season will feature a residency with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer-in-residence William Bolcom, whose works will be spotlighted, including a world-premiere commission.

Bolcom, now seventy-six, is no stranger to Chicago and no stranger to the Grant Park Music Festival. In fact, it was a 1986 Grant Park performance of his mammoth “Songs of Innocence and Experience” that led to his being commissioned by Lyric Opera to write no less than three operas for the company.

Almost the moment Lyric’s then-general director Ardis Krainik thought of Lyric’s massive “Toward the 21st Century” initiative which would present one twentieth-century European and American opera each year leading to the new millennium, Bolcom was the first composer she thought of to write a brand new American opera. “After I heard ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ in Grant Park,” the late general director told me in 1992, “I was so moved, I went backstage and asked him on the spot.” Read the rest of this entry »

Music 45: Who Keeps Chicago in Tune 2014

Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Country, Electronic/Dance, Experimental, Folk, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Music 45, R&B, Rock, Soul No Comments »
Photo: Joe Mazza of BraveLux

Photo: Joe Mazza of BraveLux

Chicago, you are a big, bold, beautiful city of infinite complexity. Your historical heritage, your social and political upheaval, your segregation, violence and corruption have birthed an incredible wealth of musical expression. It’s by virtue of these artists that our community confronts and escapes the mistakes of our metropolis. And so our publication listens intently, offering a nuanced dialogue with the musicians who craft our culture. Yet, once a year, we redirect our approach to the opposing swing of the pendulum. We zoom-out where we would normally zoom-in. This list offers a broad-stroke survey of those Chicago musicians whose current cultural currency is readily represented to the city and to the rest of the world, living artists whose quantifiable influence echoes their effect. Some big names are missing, some rankings seem arbitrary, but it’s toward these acts, firmly Chicagoan, that we look when we seek out the spirit of home. Where our words might fail, the music will not. (Kenneth Preski)

Music 45 was written by Kenneth Preski, Dennis Polkow, John Wilmes, Jessica Burg, Robert Szypko, Eric Lutz, Keidra Chaney, Reilly Gill, Corey Hall and Dave Cantor

All photos taken on location at The Hideout by Joe Mazza of BraveLux. Read the rest of this entry »

Muti does Mahler, At Last: But Not for Long

Classical, Orchestral No Comments »
Gutav Mahler at the time of his First Symphony.

Gustav Mahler at the time of his First Symphony.

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra commemorated Mahler’s death centennial three years ago, there were plenty of Mahler symphonies to be heard, to be sure. But curiously, none from its then-new music director, Riccardo Muti.

Instead, Muti chose to reconstruct the final concert that Mahler ever conducted a century before. “This was the last concert of Mahler’s life,” Muti told me at the time. “He went back to Vienna and died. As music director of the New York Philharmonic, he chose a complete program of music of Italian contemporary composers. He used the Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ Symphony because one of the composers didn’t write the piece that he asked for, but it was clear that he wanted to have a contemporary Italian evening. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Billy’s Back on Broadway” by Billy Porter

Big Band, Jazz, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Soul, Vocal Music No Comments »

RECOMMENDEDbillyporter

There was a time when it was natural for show tunes to make their way to the pop realmsingers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra all borrowed songs written for the stage and turned them into standardsincluding “On the Street Where You Live” (from “My Fair Lady”) recorded by Nat King Cole; “Luck Be a Lady” (from “Guys and Dolls”), a hit for Sinatra; ‘Till There Was You” (from “The Music Man”) famously covered by  The Beatles; and of course  “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (from “Evita”), a tune overplayed even before Madonna got her hands on it.

Nowadays it is unlikely for such songs to contribute to the Hot 100 even with the help of heavyweights like Bono or Elton John—the business has just changed too dramatically for that to happen (do you really hear anyone belting out “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” at your local karaoke bar?). That doesn’t mean that some tunes don’t deserve to be heard by non-musical theater fans, and that is where Billy Porter comes in. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Classical, Orchestral No Comments »

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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

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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 »

RECOMMENDEDnhojj_M2LH_COVER_LARGE

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

Classical, Orchestral No Comments »

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 »