Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Chicago “Now”: How the Legendary Horn Band is Redefining its Future

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By Dennis Polkow

When you’re a multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning group whose album sales have topped the one-hundred-million mark over a forty-seven-year span, it may seem as if there are no new plateaus possible. And yet 2014 is already turning out to be one of the most extraordinary ever for Chicago the band in its long history.

In January, Chicago played two sold-out concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, completing a remarkable career arc for the four original members still with the band who spent a significant portion of their formative years at or near Orchestra Hall in the mid-to-late 1960s.

“Standing on the stage of Orchestra Hall and playing with the Chicago Symphony was the highlight of my career,” assesses trumpeter Lee Loughnane. “I will never forget it.” 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 »

Muti does Mahler, At Last: But Not for Long

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Gutav Mahler at the time of his First Symphony.

Gustav Mahler at the time of his First Symphony.

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra commemorated Mahler’s death centennial three years ago, there were plenty of Mahler symphonies to be heard, to be sure. But curiously, none from its then-new music director, Riccardo Muti.

Instead, Muti chose to reconstruct the final concert that Mahler ever conducted a century before. “This was the last concert of Mahler’s life,” Muti told me at the time. “He went back to Vienna and died. As music director of the New York Philharmonic, he chose a complete program of music of Italian contemporary composers. He used the Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ Symphony because one of the composers didn’t write the piece that he asked for, but it was clear that he wanted to have a contemporary Italian evening. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Riccardo Muti & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Spring Season

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Riccardo Muti rehearsing Civic Orchestra, April 2013, Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti rehearsing Civic Orchestra, April 2013, Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti’s spring residency goes for two weeks this season, but what a jam-packed and extraordinary period of music-making it looks to be. This first week program includes pianist/conductor Mitsuko Uchida, who last week made her annual Chicago Symphony Orchestra appearance conducting from the piano. Not easy to conduct Robert Schumann from the piano, however, so Muti will be her collaborator for the Schumann Piano Concerto. The centerpiece of the program will be the Schubert “Great” Ninth Symphony, a work that Schumann championed posthumously after Schubert’s death at age thirty-one.

Muti’s idea of a day off that first weekend is to lead the Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra of the CSO that is marking its ninety-fifth anniversary this season, in an open rehearsal of movements from Prokofiev’s ballet suites for “Romeo and Juliet” on Sunday evening. This is a favorite piece of Muti’s and he has a lot to say about how various movements should sound, particularly as they relate to the emotions reflected in Shakespeare’s narrative. To watch him do so with an attentive audience of young musicians working to give him what he asks for is to experience a passing of the torch of the highest order. It also offers a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on the rehearsal techniques of one of the great conductors set to a basic level, a rare and wonderful deconstruction of the art of conducting. Tickets are free but must be ordered and demand is always high. Read the rest of this entry »

Dialogue: Muti on Schubert and the Band Chicago

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By Dennis Polkowfranz-schubert

It is a subzero late Tuesday afternoon and Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have just completed the first day’s rehearsal of Sollima’s Double Cello Concerto. (The piece would receive its world premiere later in the week.) The composer, also a soloist in the piece, is backstage, as is cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As are members of the rock group Chicago, about to complete their first-ever two-concert run with the CSO, conducted by Richard Kaufman.

Despite this odd musical assemblage, inside Muti’s office, the discussion is on his decision to place a CSO spotlight on Schubert for the 2014 season. With so much Verdi and some Wagner having been done by the Chicago Symphony for both composers’ bicentennial years in 2013, it may seem a bit odd that 2014 brings a CSO focus on Schubert despite there being no round-number anniversary.

“You know, generally I don’t like anniversaries,” says Muti, pouring a bottle of sparkling coffee, which he also offers to his quizzical guest. “If it’s a very famous composer, such as Verdi or Wagner, they are performed anyway. The problem with the lesser-known composers is that you have an anniversary and then forget about them the rest of the time. Anniversaries can be important when the performances add something to the comprehension of the composer or when musicologists write something interesting about them.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Mahler Ninth & Stravinsky “Elegy for JFK”/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Artists, Classical, Orchestral No Comments »
Photo: Mahler Death Mask

Photo: Mahler Death Mask


After his mammoth Eighth Symphony, Mahler composed “Das Lied von der Erde” and originally subtitled it a symphony. But given that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a Ninth Symphony, Mahler superstitiously refused to place that ominous number on the work and felt that he had somehow cheated fate as a result.

Ironically, Mahler would go on to write a Ninth, and even an un-orchestrated Tenth Symphony, which he would not live to complete. While “Das Lied” is really more of an orchestral song cycle than a symphony, the symphony that Mahler did complete after “Das Lied” and actually did affix the fateful number “Nine” to reflects a resignation of the acceptance of death despite enjoying every last moment of life. The Ninth is an immensely personal statement, as the composer had recently lost a daughter and had himself been recently diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. Like the finale of “Das Lied,” the finale of the massive, conflicted and personal journey of the Ninth fades into existential nothingness and remains a pivotal symphonic statement, culminating as it does the Romantic era of the nineteenth century as well as serving as a precursor of the twentieth-century music that would follow. Read the rest of this entry »

Britten Centennial Culmination: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Performs “War Requiem”

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Conductor Charles Dutoit

Conductor Charles Dutoit

Surprisingly, the centennial anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, which is November 22, has received nary a nod from either Lyric Opera or Chicago Opera Theater. That is particularly odd given that Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis is one of Britten’s most stalwart ambassadors and also how paramount Britten figured in during former general director Brian Dickie’s tenure at COT.

Nonetheless, Britten has been celebrated by many other local institutions this fall; most notably, there have been two full-blown Britten festivals concentrating on his chamber music.That leaves the single most important local Britten centennial event to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is performing his large-scale “War Requiem” this week. Given the forces involved, this is not a work very often performed. Read the rest of this entry »

Work in Progress: Muti Reveals the Once and Future Verdi, Step-by-Step

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Chorus soloist rehearsal/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Chorus soloist rehearsal/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Dennis Polkow

“Buon giorno,” says a sweater-clad Riccardo Muti, seated on his podium at an eerily empty Symphony Center, to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra clad in street clothes assembled for its first rehearsal of Verdi’s “Macbeth.”

“This is a great joy for me, since Verdi is the only composer that I can conduct,” Muti says, poking fun at his reputation as Verdi’s greatest living interpreter. The orchestra laughs.

“Seriously, you gave me the best ‘Otello’ I have ever done from an orchestral point of view,” Muti adds, referencing the 2011 Muti-led CSO performances of one of Verdi’s last operas that like “Macbeth,” is also based on Shakespeare and that has just been released on the CSO Resound label.

“You may think that because ‘Macbeth’ is earlier that it is less difficult music, but it’s not. This work was very ahead of its time. In fact, the operas to follow will be a step back.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Roberto Fonseca/Symphony Center

Afro-Cuban, Jazz, Latin No Comments »


Cuban jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca is one of those talents you cannot put in a specific corner. Sure, his groove has a lot of his Latin roots (especially in the percussive manner in which he plays the keyboards), but he surprises you at every turn, as heard on his 2013 album “Yo” (Concord), where he showcases influences from American jazz and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, to African music and samba.

For instance, the gentle ballad “Así Es La Vida” is reminiscent of the work of Herbie Hancock, but “Rachel” has elements of electronic music taken up a notch. “Quien Soy Yo” blends a lot of sounds, and even features a cavaquinho (a Brazilian instrument that could be considered a cousin of the ukulele), while elements of African music (with the participation of singer Fatoumata Diawara, Baba Sissoko on n’goni and Sekou Kouyate on kora) are peppered throughout. 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 »