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 »

The Gift That Keeps On Giving: Vinyl Me, Please Reinvents the Record-of-the-Month Club

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vinyl_me_0033b

When a friend told me about “the best damn record club out there” I was skeptical. After DJing in Chicago for twenty years, I thought, “I’ve got the record-collecting thing covered.” However, as Vinyl Me, Please shipments arrived each month, my skepticism gave way to excitement and appreciation.

You see, each record delivered from Vinyl Me, Please is painstakingly curated by obsessive music lovers—picture the staff from “High Fidelity”—who are passionate about how people listen to music.

Artists have an idea in mind when assembling an album and choosing the accompanying art and packaging. For all the benefits of streaming music (portability, accessibility), it undermines the experience of listening “exactly the way it was put together: start to finish,” asserts Tyler Barstow, co-founder of Vinyl Me, Please.

“Vinyl is, by far, the best format for that because it enforces it. It’s inherently inconvenient; it requires you to spend time with it, but allows you to give it that attention.” 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 »

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 »

Raw Material: Every Day Is Not Halloween

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Chicago's Creepy Band

Creepy Band

By Keidra Chaney

The summer concert season in Chicago is a distant memory and the idea of heading out in the pre-Polar Vortex cold to see live music is less than appealing. Still, it’s fall in Chicago and our last gasp before we collectively nest until winter comes in the form of Halloween: more specifically Halloween parties and concerts. Other cities do Halloween, of course, but Chicago’s brutal winters and love of live music means that we tend to take Halloween a bit more seriously. (I would say only Seattle does it better.)

With Halloween falling on a Friday this year, there’s even more choices for the evening, which could be great or potentially a hot mess depending on one’s love for tribute/cover bands and tolerance for sharing the evening with costumed binge drinkers in “sexy” costumes. 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.

Music 45: Who Keeps Chicago in Tune 2014

Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Country, Electronic/Dance, Experimental, Folk, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Music 45, R&B, Rock, Soul No Comments »
Photo: Joe Mazza of BraveLux

Photo: Joe Mazza of BraveLux

Chicago, you are a big, bold, beautiful city of infinite complexity. Your historical heritage, your social and political upheaval, your segregation, violence and corruption have birthed an incredible wealth of musical expression. It’s by virtue of these artists that our community confronts and escapes the mistakes of our metropolis. And so our publication listens intently, offering a nuanced dialogue with the musicians who craft our culture. Yet, once a year, we redirect our approach to the opposing swing of the pendulum. We zoom-out where we would normally zoom-in. This list offers a broad-stroke survey of those Chicago musicians whose current cultural currency is readily represented to the city and to the rest of the world, living artists whose quantifiable influence echoes their effect. Some big names are missing, some rankings seem arbitrary, but it’s toward these acts, firmly Chicagoan, that we look when we seek out the spirit of home. Where our words might fail, the music will not. (Kenneth Preski)

Music 45 was written by Kenneth Preski, Dennis Polkow, John Wilmes, Jessica Burg, Robert Szypko, Eric Lutz, Keidra Chaney, Reilly Gill, Corey Hall and Dave Cantor

All photos taken on location at The Hideout by Joe Mazza of BraveLux. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Store Day 2014: The Good, The Bad, and The Huh? How the hoopla plays out for a record store regular

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By Kenneth Preski

The GoodOutkast - Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik

Outkast “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” (Legacy)
Only issued once on vinyl, back when it was first released in 1994, the duo’s debut effort is worthy of re-evaluation in the wake of Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s first touring stint in six years. Outkast is headlining Lollapalooza, and one suspects Andre’s got the itch to rap given his numerous guest verse appearances since 2007. He raps all over “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” so it’s likely some deep cuts will make their way to a wider audience this summer, reminding the festival circuit just where and who and what Outkast represents—right there in the album title.

Gil Scott-Heron “Nothing New” (XL Recordings)
Taken from the same sessions that produced “I’m New Here,” this posthumous collection, limited to three-thousand copies, presents Gil Scott-Heron as singer-songwriter, performing fresh takes on two decades worth of compositions, now rendered immediate through the same throaty vocal that made his swan song LP such a painful and rewarding listen. When contrasted with the original versions of his tunes from the eighties, “Nothing New” provides a welcome facelift for the material, settling the legendary poet’s spirit by surrounding it with minimal frill. Voice paired with a piano yields a candid document of a life well-spent in pursuit of truth. Read the rest of this entry »

In Memoriam: Frankie Knuckles, 1955-2014

Chicago Artists, Electronic/Dance, House, In Memoriam, News and Dish 1 Comment »

Frankie-KnucklesBy Keidra Chaney

There was no better gauge of Frankie Knuckles’ influence on the global electronic music community than when word of the DJ/producer’s passing hit social media on the evening of March 31st. Within a half hour after the news of his death was first posted online–even before it was officially confirmed by journalists–Twitter and Facebook were flooded with condolences, memories and musical tributes. He was born in 1955 in The Bronx as Francis Nicholls, but in so many ways Frankie Knuckles belonged to Chicago. He made his mark on the city’s underground dance scene by spinning at The Warehouse in the late 1970s (where house music got its name) and became one of the first marquee names in the electronic music scene. Frankie Knuckles was widely known as the “Godfather of House.” It was an esteemed title he accepted with great responsibility during his career, as he served as an ambassador for house music in clubs across the world, but even that title understates the enduring imprint of his work on contemporary EDM and club culture.

Knuckles once referred to house as “disco’s revenge.” As a genre, the birth of house music was somewhat of a happy accident, a response to disco’s waning mainstream popularity in the late seventies and early eighties. In a 2011 radio interview on BBC 6, Knuckles attributes the invention of house as, quite simply, a career move. “It all came from me… trying to keep my dance floor interested and coming to the club every week after disco was declared ‘dead.’” Knuckles said. “I was already playing R&B, it was just a matter of me refashioning so that it could fit the dance floor.” Inspired by Philly Soul, the Europop and Italian disco scenes in Europe, and his own experimentation with reel-to-reel track editing and drum machines, Knuckles created a gloriously pulsating patchwork of genres that became its own original, influential style. You can hear his masterwork in the hypnotic synth of his seminal 1987 track “Your Love,” or the driving hi-hat of 1989’s eternal dance floor anthem, “Move Your Body.” Read the rest of this entry »