Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Grant Park’s Carlos Kalmar Craves the New, Whether in Music or in Life

Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Carlos and Raffaela Kalmar with newborn son Luca Pedro/Photo courtesy of Carlos Kalmar

Carlos and Raffaela Kalmar with newborn son Luca Pedro. Photo Courtesy of Carlos Kalmar

By Dennis Polkow

“He’s such a joy,” says proud father Carlos Kalmar of his son Luca Pedro, who was born on the last day of 2014. “It’s really great, I’m very happy. I don’t know if having a newborn makes you a bit more soft, that is for others to say. But it adds a component to life in general that is somehow reflected in your work when the occasion is given. In music, sometimes the depth of what we do may get even deeper. But who am I to judge?”

Kalmar has two children from a previous marriage and even a grandson. “I have started over,” he laughs. “I have two daughters who are twenty-seven and twenty-five. When you’re older, or to some extent older, I think the influence of children on you is amazing. I’m not talking about grandchildren, they are fantastic: I have one, but I don’t see him very often because he lives in Europe. But to have a child of your own when you’re older changes some things. And it’s all for the better.”

Renewal remains a virtual archetype for Kalmar, who thrives on new challenges and on learning, performing and introducing audiences to new pieces. For the closing weekend of the Grant Park Music Festival, for instance, Kalmar will conduct the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus with guest vocal soloists in a rare complete performance of Elgar’s oratorio “The Kingdom.” Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago Music Legends: Kurt Elling

Chicago Artists, Festivals, Jazz No Comments »


By Robert Rodi

This is the first in a series of profiles of Chicagoans who have enriched both the city’s and the country’s musical life. Succeeding entries will appear on an irregular basis.

Every baritone jazz singer has to stand comparison to Frank Sinatra, whose shadow looms over them so unremittingly, you want to take pity and just equip them all with miners’ helmets. And it’s true that in terms of sheer tonal beauty, Kurt Elling—the bari-jazzman of the moment—doesn’t quite match his famous forebear. Elling’s wiry, scrappy, middleweight-boxer of a voice, marked (or marred, depending on your point of view) by the occasional flatness of Chicago vowel sounds (he was born here in 1967), is an entirely different animal from Sinatra’s opulent, resonant, cello-like instrument. Sinatra’s voice is all roundness and legato; Elling’s, at its most characteristic, is serrated and staccato.

And yet the way in which Elling doesn’t quite measure up to Sinatra pales into insignificance next to the many ways in which he surpasses him. Elling’s range is an astonishing four octaves, double that of Sinatra’s, and his boundless facility for improvising is so far beyond anything Sinatra ever exhibited, there aren’t even analogous samples to set side by side for comparison. Read the rest of this entry »

Music 45 2015: Who Keeps Chicago in Tune

Music 45 3 Comments »


Our biannual behind-the-scenes look at Chicago’s thriving music community gets a little more complex every year. Performers are easy enough to pin down; they’re front and center, by definition. But it can take some digging to excavate the driving forces behind the city’s rich tapestry of orchestras, festivals, music venues and record labels. On the other hand, a certain kind of celebrity has attached itself to bloggers, promoters, radio announcers, artistic directors and journalists, that puts them almost on an equal footing to the artists they’re here to support. So we find ourselves, in this year’s Music 45, ranging wide across the city’s musical landscape, reacquainting you with names and faces you may know almost as well as your own, while introducing you to several newcomers who have labored, if not quite in obscurity, then without the recognition their endeavors have earned them. What they all have in common, is that your life—yes, yours—is a little bit richer because of them. (Robert Rodi)

Music 45 was written by Robert Rodi and Dennis Polkow
With additional contributions by Keidra Chaney, Corey Hall, Robert Loerzel, Dylan Peterson and John Wilmes

Cover and interior photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Metro Chicago Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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 1 Comment »
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

Chicago Artists, Classical, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »

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

Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »


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.