Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

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 »

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: Beethoven Festival: LOVE 2013

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Festivals, Rock No Comments »


When Beethoven died, John Quincy Adams was President of the United States. Illinois had been a state for less than a decade, and Chicago wouldn’t be incorporated for another seven years. That Chicago will play host to the world premiere of a Beethoven love song is astounding by all measures, none more so than the respective age of the composition, older than the city where it will be performed for the first time. To celebrate the momentous occasion, The International Beethoven Project, led by President and Artistic Director George Lepauw, have assembled a broad swath of love-inspired performers, including Wilco’s phenomenal drummer Glenn Kotche, and Gray, a band started by the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The programming often takes musicians to task, asking them to perform variations on a theme, most potently Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” which will get special piano and experimental electronic treatment resulting in a great number of entirely new compositions. And though the festival is his namesake, Beethoven is not the only composer represented. Matthias Pintscher, music director of Paris’ Ensemble InterContemporain, will conduct Bach’s “Saint-John’s Passion,” Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” and “Overture to Tristan and Isolde,” and Mozart’s “Gran Partita,” all as a buildup to his take on Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral Symphony).” Read the rest of this entry »

Maintaining the Composer: Best of Weekly Readings Celebrates the Evolution of Access Contemporary Music

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, New Music No Comments »

When Seth Boustead and some friends got together to play music by contemporary composers, they expected something like ten or fifteen responses to their call for manuscripts. They got more than a hundred.

Eight years later, the Weekly Readings project is going strong, with around eighty regularly participating musicians volunteering their time and a backlog of scores submitted by composers around the world. Each week, a group of musicians plays through a piece, records it and posts in on the website. The musicians only spend about two hours together, though they get their individual parts a month in advance of the session. A reading is not a polished performance, just a chance for the composer to get to hear what their piece sounds like out loud—a chance that can be hard to come by for composers who don’t have a pool of willing musicians at their disposal. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Singing in the Abbey/PianoForte’s Studio 825

Chamber Music, Chamber Pop, Chicago Artists, Classical No Comments »

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Chicago’s Singing in the Abbey effectively balances smart, moody chamber pop with trained classical-music instincts. On “Wake Up, Sardis!”—the quartet’s debut full-length officially released in early 2010—leader Annie Higgins drives the band’s gothic sound forward with her haunting, often mesmerizing, vocals and graceful piano playing. (The exquisite string accompaniments help the cause as well.) For tonight’s show at PianoForte’s Studio 825, the band plans a mix of both original compositions and classical selections, including, according to Higgins, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Live, Singing in the Abbey makes complex musical pieces seem almost breezy—it’s a soundtrack to a fairy tale, but one that lives in the shadows. “We’re excited to play in a Chicago building that has so much character, after a very long winter,” Higgins says. Recently, the band posted four new demos to music site, which are available for download. (They’re currently working on a follow-up full-length to “Sardis.”) This should be a good show to take in as winter eases its grip. (Tom Lynch)

March 18 at PianoForte’s Studio 825, 410 South Michigan, 7:30pm. $5.

A Question of Power: eighth blackbird explores the capability of music

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Minimalism, New Music No Comments »

Photo: Luke Ratray

By Dennis Polkow

When Igor Stravinsky wrote his 1936 “An Autobiography,” he made what has become an infamous statement that, “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.”

Coming from the composer of some of the most radically expressive music of the twentieth century, the paradoxical passage took many by surprise, to say the least.

Others viewed it merely as a contemporary reiteration of the nineteenth-century French aesthetic of L’art pour l’art, rendered in Latin as Ars gratia artis, or “Art for art’s sake.”

The idea that art neither had—nor needed—any ulterior purpose whatsoever other than to be art had become so commonplace in popular culture that it even became the motto of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, shown encircling a roaring lion before every MGM movie.

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in his 1976 “Morning Yet on Creation Day” offered one of the most biting criticisms of what he considered an arrogant, abstract and Eurocentric view of culture, declaring that “art for art’s sake is just another piece of deodorised dog @#!*%” (sic)

“That debate fascinated us,” says Lisa Kaplan, pianist for the Grammy Award-winning contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird, “and became the catalyst to curate pieces specifically intended to convey passion versus ‘absolute’ or abstract music for its own sake.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Esperanza Spalding/Symphony Center

Chamber Music, Jazz No Comments »


On the opening track of her much-lauded 2008 self-titled major label debut (Heads Up), bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding covered Milton Nascimento’s timeless gem “Ponta de Areia.” On her new disc, “Chamber Music Society” (Heads Up), she did not do another of his tunes. Instead, she featured Nascimento himself on “Apple Blossoms,” an original cut featured on this highly intriguing disc that blends her classical training with her jazz, pop and soul tendencies. Read the rest of this entry »

Autumn Serenade: Boulez returns with weakened eyes yet strengthened vision

Chamber Music, Classical, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »

Boulez conducts CSO in Mahler's Seventh for PBS/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Dennis Polkow

“I knew when I received ‘the call’ that something was out of the ordinary,” admits Pierre Boulez, who was on sabbatical from conducting in order to compose back in October when Chicago Symphony Orchestra management interrupted him with an SOS to step in for an ailing Riccardo Muti. “The second sentence,” he laughs, “was something like, ‘We know that you are free.’ ”

The irony was that Boulez himself was having health issues. “I had eye surgery for glaucoma that was completely unforeseen. I asked my doctors, ‘Can it wait?’ ‘No,’ they said because it was a difficult repair and they are now very happy with how it all went. I am not entirely happy with my eyes, but it is early yet. The left eye has already improved. I see, but not clearly.”

“But I did accept,” says Boulez, “for the team here, which is wonderful. And for Muti, who was at the end of his strength and was very anxious to go home to his doctor. I was in the same case with an ophthalmologist here, so I could understand him very well, wanting to get back home to his own doctor.”

Did Muti himself ever contact Boulez at any point along the process? “He was initially so de-energized, but I did get two very nice messages from him later on thanking me.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Tortoise 2.0/Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Dubstep, Electro, Experimental, Festivals, Indie Rock, Jazz, Post-Rock, Techno, World Music No Comments »


The annual weekly summer jazz series “Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz” makes a welcome return to Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion tonight for six weeks of Thursday night concerts through September 2. Spotlighting Chicago’s leading jazz artists across the spectrum of the genre—from Latin and Big Band to experimental, avant-garde and fusion forms—the series, a collaboration between the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, the Jazz Institute of Chicago and Millennium Park, will include world-premiere commissions, international collaborations and major artist centennial and anniversary celebrations.

First up is Tortoise, formed in Chicago in 1990 with roots reaching across the city’s jazz, indie-rock and punk scenes and considered pioneers of the post-rock movement. This twentieth-anniversary-year lineup, dubbed Tortoise 2.0, is made up of Dan Bitney on bass, keyboards, drums, percussion and guitar; John Herndon on drums, synthesizer, percussion and electronics; Douglas McCombs on bass, guitar and keyboards; John McEntire on keyboards, drums and percussion; and Jeff Parker on guitar, bass, keyboards, synthesizer and percussion along with special guests for this special appearance that include Ed Wilkerson on reeds; Greg Ward on saxophone; Nicole Mitchell on flute and piccolo; Jim Baker on piano and vintage ARP synthesizer 2600 and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: CUBE/Merit School of Music

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Vocal Music 1 Comment »

Marcela Pavia


For its 2009-10 season finale, CUBE Contemporary Chamber Ensemble presents a program of recent works of Chicago and “Chicago-connected” composers with special guests Carolyn Hove, English horn of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley.

Among the works included are longtime DePaul University professor and composer George Flynn’s “Charged and Calm Surfaces” for clarinet, piano and percussion, which seeks to explore a variety of moods and textures, i.e., surfaces, across a single movement; Marcela Pavia’s “Imaginary Beings” for flute and piano, based on the illusionary beings referenced in Jorge Luis Borges’ “El libro de los seres imaginarios” and which makes use of the inside of the piano, and Chiara Benati’s song cycle “Come Erba Sotto la Terra” for soprano and piano based on the poetry and political letters of Russian writer Marina Cvetaeva.

Works to be heard by CUBE composers include Patricia Morehead’s “Disquieted Souls” for English horn, string quartet and woodwind quintet, inspired by ancient Celtic perceptions of goddesses and the supernatural; Janice Misurell-Mitchell’s “Ellipse” for baritone saxophone, violin, viola and cello, a piece written in memory of late Northwestern University composer M. William Karlins, Misurell-Mitchell’s mentor; and Lawrence Axelrod’s “Songs of Yes” for mezzo soprano, speaker, string quartet, woodwind quintet, piano and percussion, based on Lorraine Schechter’s “Seasons of Yes.”  (Dennis Polkow)

June 11, 8pm, Merit School of Music’s Gottlieb Hall,  38 South Peoria, (312)405-2303. $10-$15.