Illustration: Ray Noland
By David Safran
I am a solo artist who performs live music in Chicago. Urban Dictionary, the summit of our English language, has a few definitions of “solo artist.” The second is fitting: a musician who works on “material/songs in a primarily solo state.” But I prefer the first definition: solo artists are musicians so skilled at masturbation that “they take it to the level of an art.”
At any rate, I write songs and perform them live. I use my own name—a tricky sell in 2015—and I hire musicians to accompany me on stage. These musicians are professional and skilled—and expensive. It’s a costly process, taking on a show. Each musician gets about $100-$150 for the performance. I reimburse the band for travel expenses. Sometimes they request separate payment for rehearsals. I also rent space for our practices. If I perform one local show, I need at least $450 to break even.
Occasionally I get offers to open for touring solo artists. Over the past couple of years, talent buyers have contacted me about support slots not because the music matched or the headliners (and their agents) were David Safran fans, but because I could “add heft in ticket sales.” Those headliners—all global and careered and acclaimed—were, for whatever reason, having a tough time selling tickets here. Per-show booking fees for artists I’ve supported have all been in the thousands. My guarantees have been meager. For example, City Winery paid me $300. Lincoln Hall paid me $200. In October, SPACE offered me $100 with the expectation to bring the crowd; the headliner had only sold twenty-five tickets. SPACE is a music room in the back of a suburban pizzeria. You’d think its talent buyer, Jake Samuels, was booking La Scala. Yet I couldn’t get a guarantee higher than $100. I turned down his show offer. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
Blues, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Folk, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Rock
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 »
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 »
Blues, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Country, Folk, Folk-rock, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Prog-rock, Psychedelic, R&B, Rock, Singer-Songwriter, Soul
By Dennis Polkow
Although Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang is calling from London, where he’s just given a recital at Royal Albert Hall, he is thinking ahead to Chicago. “I need to buy a new suit, I had my big breakthrough there,” he recalls, a reference to when, at conductor Christoph Eschenbach’s encouragement, he stepped in as a last-minute, unknown replacement for an indisposed Andre Watts at a 1999 Ravinia Festival Chicago Symphony Orchestra Gala, and became an overnight sensation at the ripe old age of seventeen.
Eschenbach, then Ravinia music director, was a mentor to Lang Lang, as was then-CSO music director Daniel Barenboim, so that Chicago was like a second home. He was the first artist to offer a piano recital at the Civic Opera House in 2012, and was so impressed with the sound of the venue, that he returns there this month. “When you see such a big hall, you always worry about, ‘what is the sound like?’ But it has perfect sound. I remember last time, I was playing Mozart, it was so beautiful, so precise, so intimate. It’s a miracle to see such a big space have such an intimate sound.” Read the rest of this entry »
Cameron McGill, Angela Mullenhour
By Keidra Chaney
It’s hard to believe we’re already four months into 2015. It’s particularly unbelievable that—at least to me—it’s so far been a pretty uneventful year for indie music, local or otherwise. Of course the weather’s been in a pretty soul-killing state until very recently, which has made going out for live music a bit more of a chore, but there’s also been something of a demo drought in my neck of the woods. There’s plenty of time to catch up, and Chicago tends to be at its best in spring and summer, so it’s my hope that the next few months will make up for a rather barren winter of music news and events.
That’s not to say that there’s not some good live music to check out in the next few weeks. I mentioned the Gapers Block-sponsored “Stars Align” series several columns ago; it features two musicians from different local bands collaborating for a one-night-only live performance. This month’s show, on April 16, promises to be a special one, because instead of performing covers or each other’s tunes, singer-songwriters Cameron McGill and Angela Mullenhour (of the band Coins) will perform newly co-written original songs at GMan Tavern (3740 North Clark). The show’s free, as usual for the series, and starts at 7:30pm. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
Celtic, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Folk, Interviews, Jazz, Latin, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Vocal Music
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 »
Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, In Memoriam, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music
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 »
Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Folk, Folk-rock, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Singer-Songwriter, Vocal Music
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 »