Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Bella Voce celebrates Arvo Pärt’s Eightieth Birthday by Looking Bach

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, Minimalism, New Music, News and Dish, Shape Singing, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt

By Dennis Polkow

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt turned eighty last month, a milestone which has been celebrated across the music world during this anniversary year. In Chicago, Bella Voce has taken the lead in offering Pärt performances: his “Stabat Mater” last spring and this fall, his “Berliner Messe,” a 1990 work for vocalists and organ which Pärt later revised for string orchestra and chorus.

Bella Voce is no stranger to the music of Pärt, having been chosen by Pärt’s celebrated interpreter and subsequent biographer Paul Hillier to be the choir heard in the North American professional premiere of Pärt’s “St. John Passion”—better known by its short Latin title, “Passio”—back in 1990 when the group was still known as His Majestie’s Clerkes. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Muti Makes a Gift of Mahler to the Entire City

Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, News and Dish, Orchestral No Comments »
Muti greeted by a street band in Spain similar to what Mahler imitates in the third movement of his First Symphony. Photo courtesy of

Muti greeted by a street band in Spain, similar to what Mahler imitates in the third movement of his First Symphony/Photo courtesy of

By Dennis Polkow

Riccardo Muti began his Chicago Symphony Orchestra music directorship five years ago in the 2010-11 season, which included the centennial of the death of Gustav Mahler that spring. The CSO did plenty of Mahler symphonies that anniversary year, as would be expected. But Muti conducted none of them.

Instead, Muti chose to reconstruct the final concert that Mahler ever conducted a century before, which was with the New York Philharmonic: it happened to be a program of Italian composers who were contemporaries of Mahler. In fairness to Muti, it did end up being a fascinating program; but of course, it did beg the question of why Muti was not performing any of Mahler’s own music.

Shortly after my asking Muti that very question, an unlabeled package arrived containing an old CD of Muti conducting the Mahler First Symphony done with the Philadelphia Orchestra, recorded when Muti was music director there. It was revelatory on a number of levels, so lyrical, transparent and radiant was the playing. The rich strings sounded as if the piece had been recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic.

Of course, in offering thanks the next time I saw Muti, Mahler inevitably came up again. Since Muti can make Mahler sound so glorious, I wondered, why not do some here, given that he is the music director of what many consider the world’s greatest Mahler orchestra? Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: James Conlon Bids Farewell to Ravinia, Says “Si” to Italy

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Rock, Vocal Music No Comments »
James Conlon / Photo Courtesy of Ravinia Festival

James Conlon/Photo: Ravinia Festival

By Dennis Polkow

“After I became music director eleven years ago,” says Ravinia Festival music director James Conlon, “it was so interesting how many people I would meet around the country, or Americans I would meet in Europe, that would say, ‘You know? I heard my first concerts at Ravinia.’ I started to think that everybody grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and somehow or another moved to another place in the world. It is astounding how many people of all ages were formed there, from twenty-year-olds to eighty-year-olds, and how many people Ravinia has been able to reach in its way and introduce classical music to them. Of course, the trump card of the Chicago Symphony is the best way you can do that. It was very striking to me and I am very proud to be a part of that tradition and process and hope it will continue on forever.”

Nonetheless, Conlon announced last August that the 2015 season would be his last as Ravinia music director, and that 2016 would also end his music directorship of the Cincinnati May Festival after thirty-six years. Instead, he will become the first American to ever become principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai in Turin, Italy. 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: Ars Viva’s Alan Heatherington Trades His Baton for A Cross

Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Gayle and Alan Heatherington

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 »

Offbeat: Lang Lang Dresses Up and Down for Chicago, Sixties Rockers Hold Summit for Musician’s Musician

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 No Comments »
Lang Lang  Photo: Neale Haynes

Lang Lang

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 »

Offbeat: Pacifica Explores WWI’s Impact on Music; a Monument to a Beloved Critic

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, In Memoriam, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish No Comments »
Pacifica Quartet: Masumi Per Rostad, Sibbi Bernhardsson, Simin Ganatra, Brandon Vamos

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 »

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: 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 »