Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

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 »

Raw Material: The Best of 2014? Possibly Yet to Come

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Holiday Music, Indie Rock, Interviews, Live Reviews, Metal, Prog-rock, R&B, Rock, Shoegaze, Soul, Space Pop No Comments »
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Forgotten Species

By Keidra Chaney

Here we are at the end of the year, and while most music journalists will inflict their top-ten bands/albums/live shows of 2014 lists on their readers, I’ve decided to spare you. There’s still enough time, after all, to catch the best show of the year, or even check out a new band or album that might be your favorite. There have been two or three times that my favorite concert of a given year took place during the last six weeks on the calendar (I’m looking at you, St Vincent!). This is especially true with the holidays approaching; Chicago is fond of its Christmas and pre-New Year’s live music showcases and events. Either way, there’s still a lot going on in the city when it comes to live music. Here are a few standouts.

The Empty Bottle (1035 North Western) is all up in Christmas this month, with a whole slew of Christmas and Christmas-ish events to celebrate the holiday. On December 12, they’re throwing their second annual Bottle Hop to raise money for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. It’s an old-school rock ‘n’ roll/soul/R&B shindig, which makes it a perfect opportunity to dress kinda fancy. The lineup includes badass throwback soul band The Congregation (on the verge of very big things, I predict), fifties rockers The Tenders and western swing outfit The Chandelier Swingers. The show is $10 and starts at 9pm.

A week later, on December 19, space-y collaboration Quarter Mile Thunder throws a “Xmas psych party” (which also doubles as an album release party) with the Record Low. The following night features holiday-themed Chicago supergroup Snow Angels (comprising members of Mannequin Men, Johnny and The Limelites, Vee Dee and Automatic Stinging Machines), who reconvene for their annual holiday performance; they say it’s been twelve years since they started.

If that’s too much live music for you, the Bottle also hosts a pair of lunch-hour events in time for Christmas shopping: a poster sale on December 14 and a pop-up holiday market on December 20. 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 »

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 »

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 »

Swept-Up by the Songbook: Bobby Broom Brings the Past, Present

Chicago Artists, Interviews, Jazz No Comments »
Photo: John Broughton

Photo: John Broughton

By Corey Hall

Are y’all hip to “Sweet Georgia Brown”? According to the grapevine, “It’s been said/she knocks ‘em dead/when she lands in town/Since she came/why it’s a shame/how she cools them down!” Satchmo sang about her, as did Ella, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis. And now jazz guitarist Bobby Broom and his trio have made a play for the gray gal on “My Shining Hour,” his new album that will be released on August 19.

When talking to Newcity about this song, written in 1925, and recording—which he describes as a tribute to Americana—Broom notes that its ten songs have stayed relevant through many decades. “They’re classics, and they are cultural pieces, cultural history in music, at least from my perspective,” he says, in reference to the collection’s songs, which also includes “The Jitterbug Waltz,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and “Oh! Lady Be Good.”

When discussing “Sweet Georgia Brown,” Broom recalls a special moment 4:15 in from bassist Dennis Carroll. Read the rest of this entry »

Time-Tested: Composer William Bolcom Returns to Grant Park with a new “Millennium”

Classical, Interviews No Comments »
Photo: Peter Smith

Photo: Peter Smith

By Dennis Polkow

The final week of the Grant Park Music Festival’s eightieth anniversary season will feature a residency with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer-in-residence William Bolcom, whose works will be spotlighted, including a world-premiere commission.

Bolcom, now seventy-six, is no stranger to Chicago and no stranger to the Grant Park Music Festival. In fact, it was a 1986 Grant Park performance of his mammoth “Songs of Innocence and Experience” that led to his being commissioned by Lyric Opera to write no less than three operas for the company.

Almost the moment Lyric’s then-general director Ardis Krainik thought of Lyric’s massive “Toward the 21st Century” initiative which would present one twentieth-century European and American opera each year leading to the new millennium, Bolcom was the first composer she thought of to write a brand new American opera. “After I heard ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ in Grant Park,” the late general director told me in 1992, “I was so moved, I went backstage and asked him on the spot.” Read the rest of this entry »