Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

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

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

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Interviews, Latin, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Record Reviews, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
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 »

Offbeat: Grant Park’s Carlos Kalmar Craves the New, Whether in Music or in Life

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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

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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

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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 »

Offbeat: From Lt. Dan Band to Symphonic Salutes, Kimo Williams Serves Those Who Served

Blues, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Folk, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Rock No Comments »
Kimo Williams (left) and Gary Sinise with Lt. Dan Band

Kimo Williams (left) and Gary Sinise with Lt. Dan Band

By Dennis Polkow

“When I tell people I’m a Vietnam Vet, I hear, ‘Thank you for your service,’ ” laments composer and guitarist Kimo Williams. “There’s a time, there’s a place for saying that. It just rolls off of people like a painful cliché and you’re forced to react or respond. Do you know what my service was? Do you know what I did? Hear my story, then if you want to thank me, fine.”

Williams has spent a lifetime of service to those who have been in service, starting with his own stint in the military that brought him to Vietnam in 1969. “I was a combat engineer and my job was to provide supplies to fix the dossiers that would clear land mines. Two friends of mine and I had decided one morning that we were going to see ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that night. It got to be the end of the day and I’m getting the popcorn but was told, ‘They didn’t make it.’ That was the first time that it hit me. I was so naïve I said, ‘What do you mean?’ It hit me hard, this was forever. That’s it? I went to the movie and you do continue on. It numbs you.” Read the rest of this entry »