Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

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 »

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 »

Preview: Krzysztof Penderecki & the Grant Park Orchestra/Pritzker Pavilion

Chicago Artists No Comments »


No music more typified the postwar avant-garde movement than that of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. His revolutionary 1960 “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” forever changed the way we thought about what kinds of sounds and sonorities could be achieved on string instruments. (The most famous pop-culture use of the piece was in the film “The Exorcist,” but Stanley Kubrick also used several of Penderecki’s pieces in “The Shining.”)

That experimental period of Penderecki’s style lasted well into the 1960s, culminating in such rebellious choral works as the “St. Luke Passion” and the “Dies irae.” A simpler, more tonal Penderecki style emerged during the 1970s, the composer embracing a neo-Romantic style of writing that colorfully sought to explore post-Wagnerian chromaticism.

By the 1980s, Penderecki began combining the experimental gestures and extended techniques of his avant-garde period with the Romantic expressiveness of the later, more tonal style.

A few months after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Penderecki’s 2000 Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Three Cellos and Orchestra with Charles Dutoit, the composer himself has his say in a rare area appearance conducting this work with cellists Julie Albers, Kira Kraftzoff and Amit Peled as well as the Beethoven Third Symphony, the “Eroica.”

Of course, it’s hardly surprising that a composer who takes up the baton should be able to make a fairly convincing case for his own pieces. But the level of vision, nuance and polish that Penderecki consistently demonstrates as a conductor of the music of others is no less significant. His Beethoven burns with a passion and energy that Bernstein would have been proud of and is insightfully reflective of the identification of the revolutionary of one century with the revolutionary of another. (Dennis Polkow)

July 15, 6:30pm; July 16, 7:30pm at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, (312)742-7638. Free.


Preview: Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”/Grant Park Orchestra

Classical, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »

Alexandra Petersamer



Mahler composed “Das Lied von der Erde” after his mammoth Eighth Symphony and subtitled it “Eine Symphonie,” but given that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a Ninth Symphony, he 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.

To these ears, “Das Lied” has always been more of an orchestral song cycle than a symphony, consisting as it does of six songs based on medieval Chinese poetry loosely translated into German from French and liberally paraphrased and sometimes expanded upon by Mahler himself.

As such, its maximum impact is largely dependent upon the artistry of the two vocal soloists—tenor and alto are specified, although baritone is given as an alternative for alto—not only in terms of singing ability and sheer power to cut through a full orchestra when needed, but each must have a wide arsenal of vocal timbres and dynamics that appropriately approximate the range of moods expressed in the songs themselves; like all great lieder artists, each needs to be a master storyteller. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Orchestral No Comments »

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: Kora Music from West Africa/Toumani Diabaté & the Grant Park Orchestra

Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Jazz, Orchestral, World Music No Comments »


We tend to think of rhythm as the essence of African music, being its characteristic element. That West African rhythms were cross-fertilized with European classical harmonies in America to create the genres of jazz and their stepchildren blues, rock, hip-hop, et al, only serves to spotlight the significance of rhythm as we experience it. And though the kora, the twenty-one-stringed lute-shaped instrument unique to West Africa is played rhythmically—indeed, polyrhythmically—it is the forerunner of the modern guitar as a true chordophone where the player can create harmony as well as fascinating rhythms simultaneously.

No one does this in a more compelling, musical and virtuosic manner than Toumani Diabaté, who is to the kora what Hendrix was to the guitar. Tracing seventy-one generations of griots, or master musical village storyteller’s chroniclers to his Malian heritage—including the “King of the Kora” Sidiki Diabaté (1922-1996)—Diabaté has expanded that village tradition on a global level by communicating his music mastery on a world stage. He also skillfully incorporates rock and pop genres into his playing that extends beyond his African roots and has immensely expanded the technical possibilities of the instrument. Diabaté will be heard on this program as kora soloist and with his own group the Symmetric Orchestra, as well as with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra accompanying him in a live performance of his 2008 album “The Mandé Variations” (Nonesuch). (Dennis Polkow)

August 11, 6:30pm, Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, (312)742-7638. Free.

Preview: Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus/Beethoven Ninth Symphony

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


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

Chicago Artists, Classical, Orchestral No Comments »


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.

Preview: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Mahler Ninth Symphony

Chicago Artists, Classical, Orchestral No Comments »


“In reality, you are about to hear the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler,” proclaimed conductor James Conlon as he was about to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of “Das Lied von der Erde” (“Song of the Earth”) last weekend at Ravinia, the penultimate concert of a multi-year Mahler cycle that began when Conlon became the North Shore festival’s music director back in 2005.  Mahler indeed composed “Das Lied” after his mammoth Eighth Symphony and subtitled it a symphony, but given that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a Ninth Symphony, he 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 completed after “Das Lied” and actually did affix the fateful number “Nine” to will complete the cycle. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Independence Day Eve at Grant Park/85th Army Band

Blues, Classical, Country, Festivals, Folk-rock, Holiday Music, Orchestral, Pop, Rock 1 Comment »

3rdfireworks6Fourth of July fireworks in downtown Chicago have a relatively recent history, since various neighborhoods had developed their own displays and traditions. The American Legion began staging its own fireworks in Soldier Field back in the 1930s, and the City respected that tradition by not competing with it with the exception of 1976, when a large-scale, one-time-only July Fourth fireworks display was organized to celebrate the bicentennial. That event was such a success that an annual downtown fireworks display was contemplated, although July Third—Independence Day Eve—was chosen so as not to compete with the Legion fireworks which, ironically, would become so overshadowed by the July Third fireworks that they would cease from lack of interest. Taking a cue from the best bicentennial fireworks displays across the country (Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston) that had spectacularly choreographed the pyrotechnics to a live symphony orchestra, the Grant Park Orchestra was engaged to perform a concert leading up to and during the fireworks, a tradition that continued unbroken for thirty-plus years, until now. Read the rest of this entry »