Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

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 »

In Memoriam: Gwen Pippin

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Gwen Pippin

Gwen Pippin

By Robert Rodi

On Sunday night Chicago’s music community lost Gwen Pippin, a mainstay of the city’s cabaret scene and a longtime vocal instructor at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

In her decades as a performer Gwen played virtually every club, lounge and piano bar in town; most recently she was the Saturday-night attraction at Davenport’s on Milwaukee Avenue, a gig she held from the venue’s opening in 1998.

But it was as a teacher that Gwen established her most lasting legacy. She was a fierce opponent of what I call the professionalization of singing. She was born into a world where people routinely gathered around the piano to make their own music, before the omnipresence of world-class singing on radio, LPs and TV intimidated the less gifted into silence. Gwen was not having that. She dedicated herself to helping ordinary people fulfill their need to sing—“and it is a need,” she would insist. Read the rest of this entry »

Polana Polymath: Prolific Polish Performer Anna Maria Jopek Brings Her Show to Chicago on Her First Stateside Tour

Bossa Nova, Folk, Interviews, Jazz, Vocal Music No Comments »

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By Ernest Barteldes

Though not quite a household name for American audiences, Anna Maria Jopek (pronounced YO-pek) is one of the most prolific and eclectic performers in adult contemporary Polish music. From her début album “Ale Jestem” (Universal, 1997), she has explored various musical nuances, going from classical Polish to jazz and various genres in between, including Brazilian, Portuguese and even a recent incursion into Asian sounds via her collaboration with Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone on the 2011 self-produced album “Haiku,” which could be described as a sonic blend between Polish and Japanese musical sensibilities.

Over her decade and a half career, she has worked with many well-known musicians including Branford Marsalis, bassists Christian McBride and Richard Bona, Ivan Lins and late bossa nova pioneer Oscar Castro-Neves. “Upojenie” (Nonesuch, 2008) recorded with Pat Metheny and her sole album available in the US market, is arguably one of her best works yet—a combination of original material and reimagined Metheny tunes with Polish-language lyrics specially written for the project. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: The Lightness of Lyric and the Density of ICE

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Indian Classical, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
Claire Chase/Photo: Stephanie Berger

Claire Chase/Photo: Stephanie Berger

By Dennis Polkow

Since 2013, flutist and International Contemporary Ensemble founder and artistic director Claire Chase has been on active search of a new “Density,” a reference to Edgard Varèse’s 1936 seminal flute piece “Density 21.5” (the title referred to the density of platinum, a premium flute material) a revolutionary piece of music that “forever changed the definition of the flute, humankind’s oldest instrument.”

Chase is looking to have commissioned and premiered the twenty-first-century equivalent of “Density” before the work’s centennial in 2036, at which time Chase will be fifty-eight. Chase’s search thus far has led her to offer world premieres of more then one-hundred new works for flute, many written specifically for her.

“Density 2036: part ii” presents a seventy-minute program of new works for flute and electronics (Levy Lorenzo, engineer) by George Lewis, Matthias Pintscher, Felipe Lara, Mario Diaz de León and Du Yun as Chase offers her first solo performance as Northwestern University’s Bienen School’s Institute for New Music’s 2014-15 resident artist. At $8 a ticket ($5 for students with ID) and with Varèse’s “Density” included as a finale along with a post-concert Q&A with Chase, that is a density deal. November 5, 7:30pm, Lutkin Hall, 700 University Place, Evanston, (847)467-4000.

Lyric Laughs at Its Age
November 1, 1954 was the date that Lyric Theatre of Chicago, later Lyric Opera of Chicago, came into being and the company is celebrating with a one-night-only all-star 60th Anniversary Concert and Diamond Ball on the actual anniversary date. The tone looks to be light and celebratory rather than the more formal affair that commemorated the company’s fiftieth anniversary a decade ago, since which some key company figures and artists associated with Lyric’s early years have passed away.

Emmy Award-winning actress Jane Lynch, who plays coach Sue Sylvester on the television series “Glee,” will serve as master of ceremonies and Second City will present a series of skits across the evening. Renée Fleming will traverse “Over the Rainbow” with jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis as accompanist and Eric Owens will sing “Ol’ Man River.”

Sir Andrew Davis will lead the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus and members and alumni of the Ryan Opera Center as well as a roster that includes Stephanie Blythe, Johan Botha, Christine Goerke, Susan Graham, Quinn Kelsey, Mariusz Kwiecien, Ana María Martínez, Marina Rebeka and Amber Wagner. (Previously announced Sondra Radvanovsky and Samuel Ramey will not be appearing.) Tickets for the concert only start at $75 and all concert-goers receive a hardbound copy of the commemorative book, “60 Lyric Moments.” 6:30pm, November 1, Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker, (312)332-2244.

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Beyond the Aria: J’nai Bridges with Craig Terry/Photo: Marcin Cymmer.

Journeys of the Voice
Harris Theater Presents, in conjunction with Lyric Opera’s Lyric Unlimited, has inaugurated an innovative new season-long vocal concert series called “Beyond the Aria.” The series is an outgrowth of Harris’ Tenth Anniversary Gala last fall when Harris president and managing director Michael Tiknis asked Ryan Opera Center director Craig Terry how Harris might collaborate with Lyric or the Ryan Center.

“What we ended up with was something that combined both,” says Terry, the curator, artistic advisor and accompanist of the series. Each concert spotlights two internationally known opera singers concurrently performing in Lyric Opera productions, appearing alongside of a current member of the Ryan Center.

The debut of the series featured soprano Ana María Martínez, baritone Bo Skovhus and Ryan Center mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges singing a wide range of genres including zarzuela, opera, lieder, operetta, chansons, jazz, Broadway and songs from the American songbook and featured cabaret-style seating with table service on the enclosed stage of Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion.

“I asked that everyone love the songs that they sing,” says Terry, “and we wanted the experience to be more relaxed than a regular concert hall. I had played on the Pritzker stage and it really is the perfect space: the idea is the rare pleasure to hear really great singers up close and personal in an intimate space.”

The next “Beyond the Aria” program features mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (Azucena in the company’s current “II Trovatore”), baritone Quinn Kelsey (Count di Luna in “II Trovatore”) and Ryan Center soprano Laura Wilde. November 10, 7:30pm Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)334-7777, from $35.

Soumik Datta

Soumik Datta

East and West
East meets West in Fulcrum Point New Music Project’s eclectic evening of classical and contemporary Indian music and dance called “Mirror of Enlightenment” that includes “Mara,” an enlightenment tale that depicts the life of the Buddha performed by Chicago-based Indian classical dance company Kalapriya Dance.

Twenty-five Fulcrum Point musicians will merge Messiaen and Mingus with Indian composer Param Vir to present the U.S. premiere of Vir’s “Raga Fields, Concerto for Sarod and Ensemble” featuring British-Bengali sarod virtuoso Soumik Datta as soloist.

Tabla master and Indian percussionist Kalyan Pathak will collaborate with sarod player Datta and Fulcrum Point founder/conductor/trumpeter Stephen Burns for the improvisational work “Rageshri” and will perform his own work  joined by his own ensemble, the Jazz Mata Trio. The program will conclude with Shirish Korde’s “Lalit,” a duet for flute and tabla featuring Pathak and Fulcrum Point flutist Mary Stolper. November 1, 7:30pm, Millennium Park’s Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)334-7777. $20 ($10 for students).

Notable Excursions
Guitarist extraordinaire John Abercrombie will perform with his revised quartet, which includes pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron, the same personnel on Abercrombie’s latest album, “39 Steps.” Abercrombie and Copland were both members of the Chico Hamilton Quartet and the fusion jazz-rock group Dreams back in the 1970s, but both have returned to more straight-ahead jazz as this group reflects. October 30-November 2, Jazz Showcase, 806 South Plymouth, (312)360-0234, from $20.

Attempting to fuse arts, science and culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is the object of “The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres” with the Canadian period instrument ensemble Tafelmusik. Narration, choreography and music by Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Bach and Handel will be performed to a backdrop of high-definition images from the Hubble telescope. November 7, 7:30pm, University of Chicago’s Logan Center, 915 East 60th, (773)702-2787, $35 ($5 students with ID).

Newberry Consort’s “Música Barocca Mexicana” features eighteenth-century music of the New World for voices, violins, guitar, theorbo, harpsichord and cello reconstructed as performed at the cathedral in Durango, one of Mexico’s important music centers. Newly discovered masterpieces are included with many U.S. premieres of works by Ignacio Jerusalem, Santiago Billoni, Manuel de Sumaya and others. November 7-9, various locales, (773)669-7335, from $35.

Following up on its traversal of a complete Beethoven string quartet cycle two years ago and a complete Bartók string quartet cycle last season, this year the gifted and energetic Avalon Quartet is performing a complete Brahms string quartet cycle at the Art Institute. This exquisite Sunday afternoon series includes other pieces that influenced—or have been influenced by—Brahms, followed by illuminating gallery walks that tie together revolutions in music, painting and sculpture. Brahms Quartet No. 3, Op. 67 in B-flat Major and the Debussy Quartet are the pairings in this second of a four-concert season-long series. November 9, 2pm, Fullerton Hall, 111 South Michigan, (312)443-3600, free with museum admission.

Record Review: “From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project” by Ann Hampton Callaway

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callawaysassy300RECOMMENDED

On her live tribute to Sarah Vaughan recorded at New York’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the Chicago-born singer, composer and arranger (known by the general public for the theme of the popular sitcom “The Nanny”) assembled a topnotch band formed by  Ted Rosenthal (piano), Dean Johnson (bass), Tim Horner (drums), Randy Sandke (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Dick Oatts (saxes and flute). The repertoire included tunes that Vaughan recorded throughout her long career.

The disc opens after a brief introduction with a lively rendition of Al Hoffman’s “I’m Gonna Live ‘Till I Die,” which features a lengthy, highly inspired solo from Sandke (incidentally, Hoffman was the composer of “Bear Down, Chicago Bears”). Steven Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” is played with great dramatic flair, a little reminiscent of Barbra Streisand’s version. Also notable are Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” performed in a downtempo bossa style and Adler/Rose “Whatever Lola Wants,” a sexy blues-tinged number that showcases the vocalist’s improvisations, while George Gershwin’s classic ballad “Someone To Watch Over Me” features its often-ignored introduction. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Billy’s Back on Broadway” by Billy Porter

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RECOMMENDEDbillyporter

There was a time when it was natural for show tunes to make their way to the pop realmsingers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra all borrowed songs written for the stage and turned them into standardsincluding “On the Street Where You Live” (from “My Fair Lady”) recorded by Nat King Cole; “Luck Be a Lady” (from “Guys and Dolls”), a hit for Sinatra; ‘Till There Was You” (from “The Music Man”) famously covered by  The Beatles; and of course  “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (from “Evita”), a tune overplayed even before Madonna got her hands on it.

Nowadays it is unlikely for such songs to contribute to the Hot 100 even with the help of heavyweights like Bono or Elton John—the business has just changed too dramatically for that to happen (do you really hear anyone belting out “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” at your local karaoke bar?). That doesn’t mean that some tunes don’t deserve to be heard by non-musical theater fans, and that is where Billy Porter comes in. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Made to Love Him: Celebrating Love” by Nhojj

Chicago Artists, Indie Pop, Jazz, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Vocal Music 1 Comment »

RECOMMENDEDnhojj_M2LH_COVER_LARGE

On an album comprised mostly of well-known standards (save for one original composition), Chicago-based singer-songwriter Nhojj celebrates the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships in the United States and abroad. “I am deeply grateful,” he writes in the liners, “to be living in a time when an album celebrating same-gender love could be released and even applauded.”

The album opens with a pared-down version of “Over The Rainbow” done solely with the accompaniment of Marcelo Cardozo’s electric guitar. Nhojj’s vocal range resembles that of the late Michael Jackson–he has the ability to reach low notes but mostly sings using a higher register, approaching each song in a different way. On India.Arie’s “He Heals Me,” he takes more of an R&B approach, taking advantage of the full band behind him, while on tunes like the George & Ira Gershwin classic “Our Love Is Here To Stay” he sings with a quiet bossa-like sensibility. Nhojj also reinvents Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” going for a playful samba-tinged groove without missing out on any of the title’s double entendre. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Maria Rita/City Winery

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RECOMMENDEDMaria Rita

Brazilian singer Maria Rita built her career doing her best to be outside the shadow of her late mother Elis Regina, a legendary performer in her own right whose career was cut short by a cocaine overdose. It was not an easy task, since Rita’s voice is incredibly similar to her mother’s. Over the years, she stayed away from Regina’s material while making inventive, jazz-inspired albums accompanied by a simple trio of piano, acoustic bass and drums (the exception was 2007’s “Samba Meu,” which was recorded with various percussive instruments added to the band.)

It was not until 2012 that she finally agreed to work on a project with Regina’s music in commemoration of the thirty year anniversary of her passing. “Viva Elis” was originally planned to be a limited five-performance engagement, but due to public demand it later evolved into a national tour and a CD and DVD entitled “Redescobrir.” The album covers her mother’s greatest hits played in arrangements close to the original recordings (the audience is heard cheering at the opening chords of tunes like “Como Nossos Pais” and “Águas de Março”) while some of the lesser-known songs were given a completely different treatment under the musical direction of her brother, arranger and producer João Marcelo Bôscoli. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Reviews: New Takes on Holiday Classics

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nnennafreelonandjohnbrowIt’s that time of year again, when artists of pretty much every genre do everything possible to grab your attention with new recordings of holiday classics. From major stars like Kelly Clarkson to obscure indie bands—everybody wants a piece of the holiday action. Last year, my roundup contained quite a few compilations and original releases, but this time I will keep it short and point out two favorites that came across my desk during this joyous season.

First on the list is Grammy-nominated jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon, whose “Christmas” collection features familiar favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” but man, does she swing those tunes, freely improvising around the melodies with the help of the John Brown Big Band, who expertly add their own nuanced grooves. This is not your traditional singer-backed-by-a-big-band disc. In tracks like “Spiritual Medley,” the arrangements are quite subtle, while things get hot with Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” and even “Silent Night,” is subjected to a Gospel treatment. The album closes with a New Orleans take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” that immediately gets your feet tapping. Read the rest of this entry »