Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Preview: Mariza/Harris Theater

Folk, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »


Arguably one of the lead voices of the current fado revivalist movement in Portugal, Mariza maintains the tradition of the genre while turning the spotlight on a whole new generation of composers that help keep her country’s most traditional musical style ripe for rediscovery by young generations who may have otherwise relegated it to the past.

Mariza has a dramatic singing style reminiscent of the late “Queen of Fado” Amalia Rodrigues. She brushes off those comparisons, as in the release of her 2007 live album “Concerto Em Lisboa,” where she states that, “there will be no next Amalia Rodrigues like there is no next Tom (Antonio Carlos) Jobim.” After all, new talents will always emerge but they will never be able to replace those who have passed. 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: 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: American a cappella/Grant Park Chorus

Classical, Vocal Music No Comments »


With all of the attention focused on conductor Carlos Kalmar’s recent Carnegie Hall triumph and his newly expanded role in the Grant Park Music Festival, it may be easy to overlook the significant contribution that Christopher Bell has made to the festival during what is now a decade of directing the Grant Park Chorus.

Bell has transformed what was already a fine chorus into an instrument of remarkable transparency and flexibility which is spectacularly showcased on the just-released Cedille Records release “The Pulitzer Project” where the chorus is heard performing the Pulitzer Prize-winning works William Schuman’s “A Free Song” and Leo Sowerby’s “The Canticle of the Sun” along with Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra. The chorus itself, by itself, will be the centerpiece of a special indoor Harris Theater a cappella concert of contemporary American choral music this week while Taste of Chicago is in full noisy swing outdoors.

The eclectic program includes Wisconsin-born Minnesota composer Abbie Betinis’ 2005 “Toward Sunshine, Toward Freedom: Songs of Smaller Creatures” based on animal poetry of Hans Christian Andersen, Walter de la Mare and Charles Swinburne; Milwaukee-born Glen Ellyn composer Lee Kesselman’s 1976 “Buzzings: Three pieces for Mixed Chorus” inspired by poems of Emily Dickinson; Eric Whitacre’s popular biblical lamentation “When David Heard;” Chicago composer Stacy Garrop’s 2004 “Sonnets of Desire, Longing, and Whimsy” based on poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay; Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1998 “Regina Caeli;” David Del Tredici’s “Acrostic Song” from his 1976 opera and Solti/CSO favorite “Final Alice;” Ned Rorem’s 1986 “Seven Motets for the Church Year,” British-born Paul Crabtree’s 1999 “Five Romantic Miniatures (from The Simpsons): Abe, Lisa, Homer, Marge & Homer” and Whitacre’s 2010 YouTube virtual choir piece, “Sleep.” (Dennis Polkow)

6:30pm-8pm, June 28 & 30, Millennium Park’s Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)742-7638. Free.


Preview: Agata Zubel/Harris Theater

Classical, Genre, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »


This Polish-born singer has various facets in her career. She seamlessly bridges the gap between avant-garde and classical music, and from what we’ve been able to hear she is equally comfortable in either style, whether singing in front of a symphony orchestra or a cacophony of sounds—Zubel’s YouTube clips show her belting out tunes like Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Chopin with the same enthusiasm that she does more contemporary material.

Also an awarded composer in her own right, Zubel premiered her 2nd Symphony during the Beethoven Festival in Bonn in 2005, and she has since been commissioned to do several other contemporary works. She has released various albums throughout her career, the latest being “Cascando,” a piece seemingly inspired by the tango of Astor Piazzolla, but being this modern music, don’t expect to feel the urge to dance to this. Zubel is also a music professor, and she holds a teaching position in her alma mater, Wroclaw University (Ernest Barteldes)

Zubel is half of Contempo’s Double Bill: European Connections, March 1 at Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 East Randolph, (312)334-7777; 7:30pm. $ 10-$25.

Broken Glass: How the high priest of Minimalism avoids repeating himself

Classical, Minimalism, New Music No Comments »

Philip Glass

By Dennis Polkow

“It’s a problem,” composer Philip Glass told me in 1989. “The first problem any composer has is finding a voice, and the second problem is getting rid of it. You often hear from people, ‘Oh Glass, he always sounds the same.’ It doesn’t really, but you have to make a big effort for it not to sound the same. It’s very hard to do that because it’s like trying to look at yourself in the mirror and ponder, ‘Okay, what do I really look like? What is my style of dressing?’ You can’t possibly be objective about it, and yet you can’t just trust what the papers say or what your friends tell you.”

A decade into the twenty-first century, it is now clear that Glass is the most prolific, successful and emulated American composer of the last quarter of the twentieth century, if not beyond. Although he has always disliked the term, Glass is considered one of the founding fathers of Minimalism, a style of music characterized by static—though slightly shifting—repetitious traditional rhythmic and harmonic patterns. Glass is so recognized as the high priest of the movement in the public imagination that he inspired a character on the “South Park” animated television series called Glass, who likes to write pieces based on a single note. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610/Bella Voce & The Callipygian Players

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


In case you weren’t paying attention, 2010 marks the 400th anniversary of one of the most innovative and glorious works of the Renaissance era, Monteverdi’s “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin,” more commonly known as “Vespers of 1610.”  To celebrate the occasion, the a cappella choral ensemble Bella Voce is joining forces with violinists Rachel Barton Pine and Martin Davids, along with Davids’ period-instrument-ensemble The Callipygian Players, for a rare area performance of the masterpiece that, along with its companion piece, the opera “L’Orfeo,” helped change the course of Western music.

In a press release, Bella Voce music director Andrew Lewis—who will conduct these performances—describes Monteverdi as “a composer of astonishing creativity, [who] forever changed the way we think about music. Renaissance polyphony, based on the Church Modes, made way for functional harmony—an innovation to which even rock ‘n’ roll owes its existence.  Monteverdi’s masterpiece is super-charged with rhythmic and spiritual intensity.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Kathleen Battle & the Chicago Children’s Choir/Harris Theater

Classical, Holiday Music, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »


Soprano Kathleen Battle has had a long connection to Chicago, going back to when she first began singing here as a virtual unknown at Ravinia in the early 1970s.  Some of her earliest recordings were made here with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and her last opera performance in the area was a Ravinia concert performance of Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore” with Luciano Pavarotti.  Her Lyric Opera appearances have been few and far between, as Battle’s voice has never been a large one, but always a beautiful one.  And while her diva displays of temperament are legendary—even leading to a firing and notorious ban from the Metropolitan Opera where even her old friend Levine could do little to help her—audiences never see that side of her. What will Battle sound like at this stage of her career?  That is anyone’s guess, but she is returning to familiar territory in this ultra-rare area appearance with the Chicago Children’s Choir: holiday fare and spirituals.  Traversing such crowd-pleasing repertoire that poses so little challenge to her technique and surrounded by multicultural singing children during the holiday season, here’s betting that Battle will not only look and sound like a dream, but will be on her very best behavior.  (Dennis Polkow)

December 18, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph,  (312)334-7777. 7:30pm. $45-$75.

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 »