Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Ars Viva’s Alan Heatherington Trades His Baton for A Cross

Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Gayle and Alan Heatherington

Gayle and Alan Heatherington

By Dennis Polkow

More often than not, performing arts organizations tend to cease operations for insufficient funding, declining audiences or both. How then to explain last month’s stunning announcement that after twenty years, with its extraordinary aesthetic vision fully intact, its operations solvent and its audiences supportive and enthusiastic, the 2014-15 season would be the final one ever for the Ars Viva Orchestra?

Coming onstage with his wife, Ars Viva executive director Gayle Heatherington, at his side, the organization’s founder and music director Alan Heatherington postponed his customary illuminating introductory remarks about the music about to be performed.

“All good things come to an end,” he said instead, “all great things come to an end. How many of you have had a favorite restaurant that closed?” By now, audience members had become uneasy with suspense, so Heatherington immediately broke the tension by getting right to the point: “So we are here together to announce that the May concert will be the final concert of Ars Viva,” he declared to audience gasps. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Cristina Pato Takes a Bagpipe “Voyage” and Bruce Tammen Pursues His “Passion”

Celtic, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Folk, Interviews, Jazz, Latin, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Vocal Music No Comments »
Christina Pato

Cristina Pato

By Dennis Polkow

Spanish bagpiper and pianist Cristina Pato realizes that there are lots of concertos for various solo instruments and orchestra out there—but bagpipes? “I don’t have the ability to be able to compose an orchestra piece,” she admits, “but I do have the ability to commission a composer and to open the interest of orchestras to play it.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Aimard Returns to Boulez, Muti Mourns Patner

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, In Memoriam, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Pierre Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard / Photo: Roger Mastroianni

Pierre Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard / Photo: Roger Mastroianni

By Dennis Polkow

When French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard came to Chicago in 1986, it was as a member of Pierre Boulez’s l’Ensemble InterContemporain for a week of performances. At that time, Aimard had already been playing with the Ensemble since its inception a decade earlier.

“It was such an exciting time,” Aimard recalls. “Boulez had been active abroad and was living in Germany but the moment he came back to France, there was so much anticipation.” Boulez did not disappoint: he founded the Paris-based IRCAM, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music, with the goal of enlarging the domain of materials used for music. That goal was embraced by musicians of all genres and even brought Frank Zappa to Boulez.

When Boulez himself asked Aimard to join IRCAM’s new resident ensemble, “it was a privilege, and I thought I would be there for a couple of years.” He would remain for eighteen years, before finally setting off to have a career of his own in 1994. “I was overwhelmed by the power of his artistry, of his musicianship, his fabulous intellect, his work ethic and the commitment that he gave to all of the pieces he was serving. It was a happy eighteen years.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Tobias Picker Does Not Live By Opera Alone, Peter Yarrow Still Hammering All Over This Land

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Folk, Folk-rock, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Singer-Songwriter, Vocal Music No Comments »
Tobias Picker/Photo: Harry Heleotis

Tobias Picker/Photo: Harry Heleotis

By Dennis Polkow

“I bristle at being called an opera composer,” says Tobias Picker, whose “Thérèse Raquin” runs at Chicago Opera Theater this month. “There are composers today and in the past who basically only write operas: Verdi and Puccini, that’s mainly what they did, and Wagner, too. It doesn’t apply to me because the majority of music that I write is not opera.

“Right now, I’m writing a Concerto for Orchestra for the Kennedy Center for the National Symphony. Between my last two operas I wrote a new string quartet, my second, a new piano quintet and a ballet. And I wrote some piano music and some other things I don’t remember… The operas are the biggest art form so they get the most attention and notice because they incorporate every other art form. But my orchestral tone poem ‘Old and Lost Rivers’ is more famous, more performed and more known than any opera I ever wrote.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Zap Mama Teams with Antibalas, Gunther Schuller Twines Jazz and Classical

Afrobeat, Big Band, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
Marie Daulne of Zap Mama

Marie Daulne of Zap Mama

By Dennis Polkow

Marie Daulne, founder and lead singer of the Afropop female group Zap Mama, has always straddled two continents. She never knew her European father; he was killed at the hands of Simba rebels in the Congo, where Daulne was born and from where she, her mother and sisters escaped to live in her father’s native Belgium.

One of Daulne’s primary influences growing up was Afrobeat and Fela Kuti. “All Africans living in Europe listened to him,” she says. She even saw Kuti perform as a teenager and was delighted years later when she was living in New York and “Fela!” opened on Broadway. “Prior to that, the most African thing on Broadway was ‘The Lion King’! I returned to the show several times to see Antibalas perform.” Antibalas is the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat ensemble that arranged and performed all of the music for “Fela!,” modeled on Kuti’s own Africa 70 band. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Shulamit Ran on Fifty Years of Contempo and John Eaton on Setting Death to Music

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
Shulamit Ran (Photo: Laura Hamm)

Shulamit Ran/Photo: Laura Hamm

By Dennis Polkow

Some forty-plus years later, composer Shulamit Ran still recalls her first exposure to the music of Ralph Shapey, the legendary University of Chicago composer and founder of the Contemporary Chamber Players (later known as “Contempo” for short). “It was in New York,” she says. “I do remember very distinctly feeling that this was powerful music, that for all of its high dissonance and rigor, it was music that spoke from the heart and had a passion and a specificity about it that I really appreciated.”

Much to Ran’s surprise, Shapey had come across an LP of a work of hers that impressed him so much that he sought her out for a composition position at UChicago. “It was very strange,” Ran recalls; “I knew no one in Chicago and had never been there, but once [Shapey and I] met, there was an immediate meeting of the minds… some sort of fundamental musical affinity.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: An Eclectic “Messiah” for a Diverse Holiday, Muti on Scriabin as the Next Mahler

Big Band, Blues, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Holiday Music, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, R&B, Reggae, Rock, Soul, Vocal Music No Comments »
Alfreda Burke and Rodrick Dixon

Alfreda Burke and Rodrick Dixon

By Dennis Polkow

“We’re both preachers’ kids,” says soprano Alfreda Burke of herself and husband, tenor Rodrick Dixon. “And as classical singers, we had both done our share of traditional Handel ‘Messiah’ performances.”

For the past ten years, however, the couple has been headlining the “Too Hot to Handel: A Jazz-Gospel Messiah,” each Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend at the Auditorium Theatre. With the Auditorium celebrating its 125th anniversary this season and these being the tenth anniversary Chicago performances of “Too Hot to Handel,” Burke says “this is going to be a very festive celebration this time around.”

“It really started with [conductor] Marin Alsop in New York City with the Concordia Orchestra,” explains Dixon, who became familiar with the piece by being asked to substitute for Thomas Young, the work’s original tenor. “Marin had commissioned it from Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson, to do a whole rearrangement of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ with a modern twist that kept the famous melodies that people have come to love all over the world, except modernizing them in the sense of jazz, gospel, blues and some cinematic orchestration ideas that Bob and Gary were very well known for in New York.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: New Philharmonic Revels in a Viennese New Year’s Eve; Roy Hargrove Clubs it for the Holidays

Afro-Cuban, Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Holiday Music, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
New Year's Eve with the New Philharmonic

New Year’s Eve with the New Philharmonic

By Dennis Polkow

Ringing in the New Year with the New Philharmonic has become such a popular tradition in the western suburbs that this December 31, the College of DuPage-based professional orchestra is adding a third pops concert at its newly renovated concert hall, the McAninch Arts Center.

“The tradition began as an experiment,” explains New Philharmonic music director Kirk Muspratt. “People are always looking for something to do on New Year’s Eve, so my feeling was that we should try a classy event, something very intelligent and fun, using the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concerts as a model.”

The nine o’clock debut concert sold out so quickly that a second five o’clock concert was added the following year. “We tried offering two concerts for three or four years,” says Muspratt, “but we were still always leaving two-hundred people out in the cold waiting for tickets.” Thus, the thought to add a third concert this year, at one o’clock in the afternoon.

Muspratt admits that what began as a Vienna template has evolved into something far more eclectic. “I went to school in Vienna at the Conservatory, so am very at home in that tradition. We originally did light classical: some Lehár, some Johann Strauss, maybe some Rossini. Little by little, as the audience responded to new things, the thinking broadened and it was like, ‘Let’s have a little French twist,’ and we’d add some Saint-Saëns. Then we began doing some American things that were very well received. People like the mix, the variety and it has evolved into a pastiche of music.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Renée Fleming Reaches Out From Opera, Blind Boys Modernize Their Message

Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Country, Holiday Music, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Rock, Vocal Music No Comments »
Renée Fleming with KISS at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

Renée Fleming with KISS at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

By Dennis Polkow

It’s a busy holiday season for the “People’s Diva,” Renée Fleming: not only has the soprano released her first-ever Christmas album, “Christmas in New York” (Decca), but PBS has produced a television special on the making of the album. As if that weren’t enough, Fleming sang at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and is opening a new production of “The Merry Widow” at the Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Eve, with Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis at the podium.

Christmas itself, however, Fleming admits, will remain a family affair. “My whole family sings like crazy,” says Fleming. “When we decorate the tree, my daughters and I have a major impromptu scat-singing festival.” It’s this spirit that informs the eclectic approach of “Christmas in New York,” on which Fleming performs with guest artists Wynton Marsalis, Gregory Porter, Kelli O’Hara, Chris Botti, Brad Mehldau, Rufus Wainwright and Chicago jazz singer Kurt Elling.

For those expecting a killer rendition of “O Holy Night” or “Ave Maria,” think again. “That was my expectation as well,” laughs Fleming. “I just assumed when I would finally do a Christmas album, it would be that Karajan-Vienna Philharmonic-Leontyne Price template. But this came together in a different way and Universal had a different idea about it.

“I stayed away from carols for the most part, except for ‘Stille, Stille, Stille.’ I also went to my collaborators and said, ‘What would you like to do?’ I took their lead in many cases. Since this took about nine months to really finish up, I worried for a while about it coming together in a way that would make it feel like a whole, but it did. There was enough variety on it to enable it to have that sense of different things coming together.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Epic Holiday Treats from Turin, Joey DeFrancesco and Music of the Baroque

Blues, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Holiday Music, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Gianandrea Noseda

Gianandrea Noseda

By Dennis Polkow

For the first time, Millennium Park’s Harris Theater is presenting an opera independent from Chicago Opera Theater, a mainstay of the venue since it opened more than a decade ago. The one-night-only event features a rare, complete concert performance of Rossini’s “William Tell” by Teatro Regio Torino (Turin, Italy), in the company’s North American debut. This is the first time an Italian opera house will tour a complete opera in North America. Chicago is one of only four stops on the tour, which also includes Carnegie Hall. Baritone Luca Salsi sings the title role, with soprano Angela Meade as Matilde and tenor John Osborn as Arnoldo. The Teatro Regio Torino orchestra and chorus is conducted by the company’s music director, Gianandrea Noseda, who was just chosen as Musical America’s 2015 Conductor of the Year.

“Grazie,” says Noseda, congratulated by phone in Munich, where at press time he was guest conductor at the Bavarian State Orchestra. Ironically, although Noseda’s season-long engagements with Teatro Regio Torino were never in question, reports had surfaced that he’d stepped aside as music director due to highly publicized artistic differences with the company’s general manager. “I am still there,” he reassures me. He calls the mutual striving for both sides to come to an understanding “a work in progress,” and adds, “There are new people coming in [to the company], who I think will make all the difference. We will find our way. At least that is my wish, my hope.” Read the rest of this entry »