Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Kenji Bunch Makes Music From the Inside Out

Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
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 »

Offbeat: Pacifica Explores WWI’s Impact on Music; a Monument to a Beloved Critic

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, In Memoriam, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish No Comments »
Pacifica Quartet: Masumi Per Rostad, Sibbi Bernhardsson, Simin Ganatra, Brandon Vamos

Pacifica Quartet: Masumi Per Rostad, Sibbi Bernhardsson, Simin Ganatra, Brandon Vamos

By Dennis Polkow

The diversity of music that was composed during the First World War will be spotlighted during a special Pacifica Quartet-conceived University of Chicago Presents festival called “Centenary Weekend: The Crossroads of World War I and Music,” which will include six concerts across a single weekend.

“We did a recording eight years ago called ‘Declarations’ which was music written between the wars,” explains Pacifica violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson. “One of the things we have been talking about a lot was that the early part of the twentieth century was perhaps the most varied time when it came to different types of great music being written, different styles and idioms when there was so much going on. Entering into the centennial of World War I, we thought it would be interesting to make a festival where we highlighted exactly that.” 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: Chicago Jazz Philharmonic at Ten, Pierre Boulez at Ninety

Big Band, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral No Comments »
Orbert Davis

Orbert Davis

By Dennis Polkow

“When we started, the world knew me only as a jazz trumpet player,” admits Orbert Davis, the founder and artistic director of the sixty-piece Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this season. “Even the musicians were like, ‘What is he going to do, standing up there? He’s not a conductor!’ When we did our first recording, some of the sub musicians looked around and said, ‘Who wrote this?’ ‘I did!’ ”

Davis’ vision of a full-scale “third stream” ensemble has evolved over the past decade. “We think of the first stream, which is classical, and the second stream, which is jazz, but it’s difficult to understand how they come together; we tend to think of what keeps them apart.” Originally the orchestra featured both classical and jazz musicians, and the school each belonged to was obvious. Now the members have synthesized into a core group who “get it,” Davis asserts. “They are a community. I can reference [Ellington’s] ‘Jubilee Stomp’ or a Beethoven symphony and everyone knows what I’m asking for!” Read the rest of this entry »