Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

The Tip Sheet: Classical Music By—and For—the Good Guys

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Photography of Progress, Process, Studio Practice Documentation

Grant Wallace Band

By Seth Boustead

Close your eyes for a moment and picture this familiar scenario: A super-villain is sitting in a high-backed chair, fiendishly stroking a kitten while he tells a momentarily incapacitated super-spy and a handful of hapless goons his current plan for world domination. What music is he listening to as he does this? That’s right, he’s listening to classical music.

Given that this is one of the enduring images we who have chosen this field have had to deal with at least since Wagner, how disappointing was it to open up the newspaper the other day and read that that arch-fucker Vladimir Putin had decided to put on an open-air classical music concert in war-torn Syria featuring his good buddy and fellow one-percenter, and also decidedly mediocre cellist, Sergei Roldugin. Read the rest of this entry »

Con Brio: Baroque Band to Disband After “L’Arte del Violino”

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Garry Clarke

Garry Clarke

Nine years is a relatively long time for a period-instrument orchestra in Chicago: some twenty-five years ago, the City Musick only made it to six seasons. It’s not that we don’t have the performers and the audience for early music, but lining them up with unified artistic vision and managerial leadership for the long term has thus far remained an elusive formula. Even Music of the Baroque, a modern-instrument ensemble with a long history, managed to survive only after a coup more than a decade-and-a-half ago when its founder was unceremoniously dumped by his own board.

Baroque Band was founded by UK violinist Garry Clarke with the hope of beating the odds, and in its prime, its future looked promising. Clarke and company became the pit band for Chicago Opera Theater’s Baroque operas, all but a memory since the departure of Brian Dickie, but having regrouped somewhat in Haymarket Opera. As it happens, a defection of key players from Baroque Band to Haymarket Opera, and the need to bring in players from the East Coast for BB concerts to compensate, likely contributed to making the current model financially unsustainable. Read the rest of this entry »

The Tip Sheet: Pulitzer Reflections and Some Prize Performances

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Henry Threadgill

By Seth Boustead

French artist and curator Jean Dubuffet coined a term he called art brut, which he defined as “works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part. These artists derive everything from their own depths and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art.”

In art brut the expressive content was more important than a glossy finished product; practitioners of art brut walked to the beat of their own drum and never gave a thought as to how their artistic vision fit into larger trends. Art brut would later become known as outsider art, a movement to which Chicago has contributed plenty. Read the rest of this entry »

The Tip Sheet: The Season Springs Toward a Close

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Ursa

Ensemble Ursa

By Seth Boustead

May is always a busy month for classical music as we wrap up our concert seasons and prepare to adjourn to our summer homes to drink port, abuse the help and shoot defenseless animals.

Sadly though, this year I’ll be stuck in the city as my beloved manor burned down last fall during a regrettable flare-gun duel with an impudent young oboist who questioned my knowledge of French Baroque performance practices. Which admittedly I know nothing about, but still, what the hell? At any rate, here are my favorite upcoming classical music events, sans impudence. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Muti on the Mend and on “Falstaff”

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Muti, Riccardo -- 2016 Japanese stamp

By Dennis Polkow

When Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti cancelled two weeks of concerts in February, the only details that were released at the time were that he was recovering from a “hip operation” after a “minor accident.”

The timing was odd, as Muti had just completed a tour of the Far East with the CSO. Given the lack of details, international speculation ran rampant that he had injured himself while on tour or even last fall, but had waited to go home for surgery. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Michael Tiknis to Depart After Making Harris More User Friendly

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Michael Tiknis

Michael Tiknis

By Dennis Polkow

How does a downtown performing arts theater that is less than a dozen years old come to need nearly ten million dollars in renovations?

“When the Harris Theater was designed and built,” Harris Theater president and general managing director Michael Tiknis explains, “Millennium Park was still an idea that was developing organically along with the Harris. Twelve or thirteen years ago, the idea was you could park your car and never go outside into the cold and walk right into the theater.

“It was all designed for you to come into the garage and come in through the lowest level. And when you do that, for the most part, it works very well. But all of the restaurants and Millennium Park being built around it gave rise to a lot more people coming in on upper Randolph than those tiny little elevators were ever designed to hold. And all of those new, surrounding neighborhoods made us realize that what had been designed virtually before Millennium Park and in a vacuum, needed to be rethought as it became a living organic thing with this neighborhood developing. So, it’s not a theater renovation because of age, it’s a theater renovation because of change of use. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Haymarket Debuts Lenten Oratorio Series with “Dangerous” Music

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Haymarket Opera Orchestra, Craig Trompeter (center)

Haymarket Opera Company, Craig Trompeter (center)

By Dennis Polkow

“The unusual element in Stradella’s music is it is dangerous sounding,” says Haymarket Opera artistic director, cellist and violist da gamba Craig Trompeter. “The virtuosity is really pushed to the limits to a scary place where it’s kind of like watching a horror film. We’re somehow fascinated by that as human beings, we want to watch other people in danger.”

Italian composer Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682) led such an unabashedly risqué life that his notorious escapades were the subject of no less than two nineteenth-century operas and a twentieth-century novel.

Often fleeing places where he had been employed to compose, Stradella once escaped Rome over embezzlement of church funds. More often, Stradella’s flights were over scandalous affairs with noblewomen that would find himself at the mercy of enraged aristocratic families who would set out to kill him. One left him half dead, another finally succeeded—when a hired assassin stabbed him to death in a public square in Genoa when Stradella was forty-two years old. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Philip Glass Comes Home to Chicago

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Philip Glass (left) and David Bowie, 1992

Philip Glass (left) and David Bowie, 1992

By Dennis Polkow

Composer Philip Glass is coming home. Well, sort of. The high priest of Minimalism, a term Glass has always loathed, will be in residence at the University of Chicago this month. Although it is not the first time Glass has been back to his Hyde Park alma mater, where he was once a mathematics and philosophy major, this is his first official residency there as a Presidential Arts Fellow.

Glass’ residency will include a University of Chicago Presents concert where he and others will perform his Piano Etudes, a screening of the film “Mishima” which Glass scored and will discuss, a free public talk on artistic collaboration and various conversations with students and faculty from across the university.

Chicago was where Glass originally realized—while practicing piano pieces of Charles Ives and Anton Webern—that he wanted to become a composer, although he would head to Juilliard to begin to accomplish that goal. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: After a New York Detour, Stephen Williamson is Back Home Playing Mozart

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Stephen Williamson (center) conducts a master class. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Stephen Williamson/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Dennis Polkow

“Honestly, I felt like I was being shot out of a cannon,” says Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson of the day he unexpectedly landed the job. “There had been four years of auditions and the position was still vacant. I was at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and was being asked every time, ‘Please, will you come?’ My wife and I struggled with it and I told her, ‘They’re not finding anybody. I feel I need to go out there and to at least say that I tried, that I represented myself.’

“When I finally came to Chicago, I wasn’t expecting anything. All I was hoping was that I would have an opportunity to be invited to play a week with the orchestra and then, whatever happens, happens. And I could say that at least I got to play with the Chicago Symphony and that it was a great experience.”

What Williamson never expected was for music director Riccardo Muti and the audition committee to offer him the position on the spot immediately after he had concluded his audition. “I really was shocked. They did it so early in the morning because I had to fly back to do a ‘Die Walküre’ performance with Maestro [James] Levine. I was elated, but in shock, because I had to go back to my music director at the Met, play that same night and say, ‘By the way, something just happened.’ The news was already at the Met before I even showed up off the plane. Maestro Levine had requested to see me at intermission.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Composer Jimmy López Makes Peruvian Folk Music Highbrow

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Jimmy López

Jimmy López

By Dennis Polkow

“One of my greatest experiences is when things come to you,” admits Peruvian composer Jimmy López. “The first composition I ever wrote came through a dream, I can still remember it. I trust my memory in that sense.”

Some of the musical ideas that come to López remain with him for years before they end up in an actual piece of music. “I try to write things down only after they have already taken a certain shape in my mind. I don’t really like to write down ideas that I feel are premature. There’s a certain plasticity that ideas have when they’re in your mind rather than written down.”

López reveals he has ideas that “I am carrying right now. There is one I have been carrying since at least 2003.” One from 2007 was only recently written down and turned into a finished piece. “It’s a beautiful melody that I never wrote down because I didn’t know what I was going to use it for, I had no idea. I saw the opportunity to use it, finally, it felt perfect.” Read the rest of this entry »