Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

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 »

News: Muti to Make Rare December Appearance with CSO

Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music 1 Comment »
Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti

Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti is making a rare December appearance this week with the CSO. The Italian-born conductor usually conducts quarterly residencies, but this year has added a fifth residency close to the holidays. This has never happened before as Muti is usually back home in his native Italy at this time of year, but is reflective of how increasingly “at home” Muti feels in Chicago.

During the Sir Georg Solti era of the CSO, the Hungarian-born conductor, who made his home in London, spent so little time here that he was known as an “absentee landlord.” Daniel Barenboim notoriously flew out of Chicago the same night he conducted his final concert as music director in 2006. Muti, however, seems to relish his time here. “When I go back to Italy, my wife asks me, ‘What have you been doing in Chicago?’ ” admits Muti. “And I tell her, ‘Having fun.’ ”

Why only a single program across a single week? “Because someone was asked to come here—I would rather not say who—who really should not be conducting here,” Muti explains. “This orchestra should only have the best, and this was not the best. I was asked, ‘Who can we get to take a one-week program in December with so little notice?’ I said, ‘I will come. With pleasure.’ ” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Sir Andrew Davis Traverses Continents and Genres

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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 »

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 www.RiccardoMutiMusic.com

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

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 »