Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

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 »

Music 45: Who Keeps Chicago in Tune 2013

Chicago Artists, Classical, Electronic/Dance, Festivals, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Music 45, Rock No Comments »
Cover by Colin Denney

Cover by Colin Denney

Music is alive and well and living in Chicago.

While that once might have meant records and radio and bands being signed to major labels, it’s a much more complex score these days, with artists and venues more entrepreneurial than ever. But at the core is the shift in emphasis from recorded to live music, and it’s a change that’s made Chicago a town of festivals, from the city’s bedrock blues, jazz, gospel and world music festivals, to Lollapalooza and Pitchfork, to the new electronic dance music festivals—Spring Awakening, Wavefront and North Coast—as well as the explosive growth of an old one, the Chosen Few DJs Picnic. With these shifts, the players are changing too; since we last made this list of the behind-the-scenesters, the power list if you will, most of the list has changed. This year’s forty-five include twenty-six folks who were not on the list that last time in 2009. (Brian Hieggelke)

Music 45 was written by Brian Hieggelke, Dennis Polkow and Kenneth Preski, with additional contributions by Dave Cantor, Keidra Chaney, Dylan Peterson, John Wilmes and B. David Zarley. See previous years here. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: The Book with Seven Seals/Grant Park Orchestra

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Franz Schmidt


It is odd how history has dealt with Hitler’s attraction to certain composers: performing Wagner in a high-profile manner is still considered taboo in Israel, although no one in Israel or anywhere else worries about programming Hitler’s favorite work by his favorite composer, “Carmina burana” by Carl Orff.

The music of Austrian composer Franz Schmidt did, however, suffer because of its association with Hitler and as popular as Schmidt’s music was through 1945, it fell into virtual disuse after the war because his music had been canonized by the Nazis.

Schmidt’s 1937 cantata “The Book with Seven Seals” brought Wagnerian-style music drama to the setting of the apocalyptic biblical Book of Revelation in a manner that satiated the Nazis, who had invaded Austria just three months before the world premiere.    Read the rest of this entry »

Kalmar Waters: Amidst the city’s choppy cultural currents, the Grant Park Music Festival charts a higher-profile course

Chicago Artists, Festivals, News and Dish, Orchestral No Comments »

By Dennis Polkow

Much has happened to Carlos Kalmar since he was last in town, conducting the Grant Park Orchestra last summer as he has for well over a decade.

To begin with, Kalmar made his Carnegie Hall debut last month with “his other orchestra,” the Oregon Symphony, absolutely wowing even the most hardened New York critics.

“I knew that the program was effective and I knew what my orchestra could do,” says Kalmar, “but you cannot know how New York would respond. Obviously, I am pleased and humbled at the reception that we received.”

Although Kalmar had conducted Mostly Mozart concerts at Avery Fisher Hall “when I was a young conductor,” the Oregon Symphony concerts were his first at Carnegie Hall. “They have already invited us back for 2013. You know, this is a very fine orchestra with a grand tradition. It is 115 years old, the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi.”

The other good news both for Kalmar and Chicago is last month’s Grant Park Music Festival announcement that Kalmar’s contract as principal conductor of the Grant Park Orchestra has been extended for five years. Along with that announcement came the additional news that Kalmar has also been appointed the Grant Park Music Festival’s artistic director. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2/Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus

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Carlos Kalmar/Photo: Norman Timonera


Ten seasons ago when Carlos Kalmar was made principal conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival, hearing Mahler performed by the Grant Park Orchestra was a rarity. But one of Kalmar’s earliest concerts here was a stunning performance of the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2, and it was that extraordinary concert that led to his being hired for the post. Kalmar, who was born in Uruguay to Austrian parents and had his musical training in Vienna and spent his early career conducting in Europe, admits that he had never heard of the GPO when former artistic director James W. Palermo first invited him to guest-conduct here back in 1998. “I expected that a city the size of Chicago would have a ‘good’ orchestra,” Kalmar recalls, “but they were so immediately responsive.” Palermo asked Kalmar back the following 1999 season to conduct the Mahler, and neither he nor the Grant Park Orchestra have ever been the same. “I didn’t know it at the time,” says Kalmar, “because I didn’t even know they were looking for someone [to become principal conductor], but that became my ‘audition’ piece. Well, if you can’t get a reaction from a piece like that, you’re not much of a conductor!” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Dvorák’s Requiem/Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus

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Dvorák is best known as an orchestral composer who wrote bright, Czech-influenced “Slavonic Dances,” symphonies, a memorable cello concerto and chamber music, but the Dvorák who wrote the large-scale choral work “Stabat Mater” represents a more introspective and meditative side of the composer, a man who lost three children within the first four years of his marriage. Turning to the famous medieval poem that portrays the grief of Mary at the foot of the cross of Jesus, Dvorák found setting the text with four soloists and a full chorus and orchestra an expression of his grief.

That work cemented Dvorák’s international reputation and a follow-up commission emerged from England to set a specific text for the same forces, Cardinal John Henry Newman’s “The Dream of Gerontius,” which Elgar would later set and which the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus performed last season. Dvorák rejected the text and preferred instead a setting of the Catholic Requiem Mass which afforded him the opportunity to offer a contemplative alternative to the bombastic settings of the same text by Berlioz and Verdi.

It is a work that is rarely performed and has a moving effect on both performers and audiences, despite its length of almost ninety minutes, and should provide an extraordinary showcase for the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus along with soprano Layla Claire, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Petersamer, tenor Brendan Tuohy and bass Kyle Ketelsen and conductor Carlos Kalmar. (Dennis Polkow)

August 13, 6:30pm, August 14, 7:30pm, Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, (312)742-7638. Free.

Preview: The Pulitzer Project/Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus

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William Schuman


Aristotle warns us to beware of seeking the “life of honor,” as the awards afforded us by others are a poor substitute for the best judge of anything we do, i.e., ourselves. It is true that those of us who depend on the accolades of others can be superficial and shallow creatures looking for outside attention as a substitute for a lack within, but then again, we could just be sore losers that we didn’t get an award ourselves.

In music, the award that everyone loves to hate is the Pulitzer Prize, an arbitrary barometer of classical music elitism since it was first awarded back in 1943. Infamous for its institutionalized Eurocentric and Caucasian patriarchal sensibilities for decades, the process itself became forever tainted when the Pulitzer music jury chose Duke Ellington for the Prize in 1965, only to have the Pulitzer board reject that decision and choose not to give an award at all that year. (Ellington would get a posthumous honorary Pulitzer nearly a quarter of a century later, for his centennial. Chicago composer Ralph Shapey would also be chosen for a Pulitzer by the jury in 1992, only to have the board reject that decision as well.) Slowly but surely, the awards have opened up a bit—there have even been a handful of female and African-American recipients—but still largely continue to be insular. Whatever the merit or relevance of a Pulitzer in music, it is hard not to be struck by the irrelevance of the vast majority of the scores that have actually been given the award virtually since its inception. Read the rest of this entry »

New Development: Grant Park musical chairs signals changing direction in leadership

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Photo: Brook Collins

By Dennis Polkow

“It’s true that artistic programming is not in my professional background,” admits new Grant Park Music Festival executive director Elizabeth Hurley, “not to be confused with the actress,” she adds, tongue-in-cheek. “But I have worked for two of what are arguably the very best performing arts organizations in the world,” she is quick to add, “and I’ve had my share of interactions and relationships with music directors and performers. I certainly have a point of view and my own personal taste and ideas.”

Hurley was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Vice President for Development for five of her sixteen years working there, through 2005, and more recently held a similar position at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus/Beethoven Ninth Symphony

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Last week’s Lollapalooza drove the Grant Park Orchestra indoors to the Harris Theater to traverse Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony for the first time ever in the festival’s seventy-five season history; the results, particularly in the fragile finale, were glorious and well worth the wait.  To close the seventy-fifth season, Carlos Kalmar and the GPO take back the outdoors and are joined by Christopher Bell’s vastly under-appreciated Grant Park Chorus and soprano Amber Wagner, mezzo soprano Kathryn Leemhuis, tenor John McVeigh and bass Jason Grant in the monumental Beethoven Ninth Symphony.  Those quiet sections will give traffic a chance to compete but by the time of the glorious finale, street noise won’t have a prayer against all of those forces blaring away and singing out about the brotherhood of man.  As the season closes, don’t forget the Festival’s new coffee-table book “Sounds of Chicago’s Lakefront: A Celebration of the Grant Park Music Festival” ($39.95) that is not only a chance to relive the musical highlights of the summer festival’s three quarters of a century all year long, but is chocked with fascinating history and photographs concerning the development and evolution of Chicago’s lakefront for well over a century.  (Dennis Polkow)

August 14, 6:30pm, and  August 15, 7:30pm, at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, (312)742-7638. Free.

Preview: Carlos Kalmar & The Grant Park Orchestra/Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

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A decade ago when Carlos Kalmar became music director of the Grant Park Music Festival, hearing Mahler performed by the Grant Park Orchestra was a rarity. But one of Kalmar’s first concerts here was a stunning performance of the Mahler Second “Resurrection” Symphony and it was that extraordinary concert that led to his being hired for the post.  Mahler remains a relative rarity at the downtown festival (no more than one work per season, tops) not only because of the huge amount of rehearsal time that these gargantuan works use up but also because of the immense street noise that always threatens to drown out the quieter sections, but not this time; Kalmar and the GPO are taking the Mahler Ninth Symphony—which contains some of Mahler’s most sublime music—indoors to the Harris Theatre for two weekend performances.  Yes, as always, the concerts are free, but seats are unreserved so early arrival is recommended.  Unlike the CSO, where you would have to fork out big bucks to experience Mahler, the price affords a rare recession-friendly opportunity to hear Mahler’s last completed symphony with all of its angst-driven farewell to life (Mahler had been diagnosed with a fatal heart condition and knew the end was near) without the additional worry of spending money to do so.  Saturday night’s performance includes a 6:15pm pre-concert “Coffee Talk” discussion with Kalmar about this extraordinary work.  (Dennis Polkow)

August 7, 6:30pm and August 8, 7:30pm, at Millennium Park’s Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, (312)742-7638. Free.