Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Michael Tiknis to Depart After Making Harris More User Friendly

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Michael Tiknis

Michael Tiknis

By Dennis Polkow

How does a downtown performing arts theater that is less than a dozen years old come to need nearly ten million dollars in renovations?

“When the Harris Theater was designed and built,” Harris Theater president and general managing director Michael Tiknis explains, “Millennium Park was still an idea that was developing organically along with the Harris. Twelve or thirteen years ago, the idea was you could park your car and never go outside into the cold and walk right into the theater.

“It was all designed for you to come into the garage and come in through the lowest level. And when you do that, for the most part, it works very well. But all of the restaurants and Millennium Park being built around it gave rise to a lot more people coming in on upper Randolph than those tiny little elevators were ever designed to hold. And all of those new, surrounding neighborhoods made us realize that what had been designed virtually before Millennium Park and in a vacuum, needed to be rethought as it became a living organic thing with this neighborhood developing. So, it’s not a theater renovation because of age, it’s a theater renovation because of change of use. 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: The Lightness of Lyric and the Density of ICE

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Indian Classical, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
Claire Chase/Photo: Stephanie Berger

Claire Chase/Photo: Stephanie Berger

By Dennis Polkow

Since 2013, flutist and International Contemporary Ensemble founder and artistic director Claire Chase has been on active search of a new “Density,” a reference to Edgard Varèse’s 1936 seminal flute piece “Density 21.5” (the title referred to the density of platinum, a premium flute material) a revolutionary piece of music that “forever changed the definition of the flute, humankind’s oldest instrument.”

Chase is looking to have commissioned and premiered the twenty-first-century equivalent of “Density” before the work’s centennial in 2036, at which time Chase will be fifty-eight. Chase’s search thus far has led her to offer world premieres of more then one-hundred new works for flute, many written specifically for her.

“Density 2036: part ii” presents a seventy-minute program of new works for flute and electronics (Levy Lorenzo, engineer) by George Lewis, Matthias Pintscher, Felipe Lara, Mario Diaz de León and Du Yun as Chase offers her first solo performance as Northwestern University’s Bienen School’s Institute for New Music’s 2014-15 resident artist. At $8 a ticket ($5 for students with ID) and with Varèse’s “Density” included as a finale along with a post-concert Q&A with Chase, that is a density deal. November 5, 7:30pm, Lutkin Hall, 700 University Place, Evanston, (847)467-4000.

Lyric Laughs at Its Age
November 1, 1954 was the date that Lyric Theatre of Chicago, later Lyric Opera of Chicago, came into being and the company is celebrating with a one-night-only all-star 60th Anniversary Concert and Diamond Ball on the actual anniversary date. The tone looks to be light and celebratory rather than the more formal affair that commemorated the company’s fiftieth anniversary a decade ago, since which some key company figures and artists associated with Lyric’s early years have passed away.

Emmy Award-winning actress Jane Lynch, who plays coach Sue Sylvester on the television series “Glee,” will serve as master of ceremonies and Second City will present a series of skits across the evening. Renée Fleming will traverse “Over the Rainbow” with jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis as accompanist and Eric Owens will sing “Ol’ Man River.”

Sir Andrew Davis will lead the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus and members and alumni of the Ryan Opera Center as well as a roster that includes Stephanie Blythe, Johan Botha, Christine Goerke, Susan Graham, Quinn Kelsey, Mariusz Kwiecien, Ana María Martínez, Marina Rebeka and Amber Wagner. (Previously announced Sondra Radvanovsky and Samuel Ramey will not be appearing.) Tickets for the concert only start at $75 and all concert-goers receive a hardbound copy of the commemorative book, “60 Lyric Moments.” 6:30pm, November 1, Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker, (312)332-2244.


Beyond the Aria: J’nai Bridges with Craig Terry/Photo: Marcin Cymmer.

Journeys of the Voice
Harris Theater Presents, in conjunction with Lyric Opera’s Lyric Unlimited, has inaugurated an innovative new season-long vocal concert series called “Beyond the Aria.” The series is an outgrowth of Harris’ Tenth Anniversary Gala last fall when Harris president and managing director Michael Tiknis asked Ryan Opera Center director Craig Terry how Harris might collaborate with Lyric or the Ryan Center.

“What we ended up with was something that combined both,” says Terry, the curator, artistic advisor and accompanist of the series. Each concert spotlights two internationally known opera singers concurrently performing in Lyric Opera productions, appearing alongside of a current member of the Ryan Center.

The debut of the series featured soprano Ana María Martínez, baritone Bo Skovhus and Ryan Center mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges singing a wide range of genres including zarzuela, opera, lieder, operetta, chansons, jazz, Broadway and songs from the American songbook and featured cabaret-style seating with table service on the enclosed stage of Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion.

“I asked that everyone love the songs that they sing,” says Terry, “and we wanted the experience to be more relaxed than a regular concert hall. I had played on the Pritzker stage and it really is the perfect space: the idea is the rare pleasure to hear really great singers up close and personal in an intimate space.”

The next “Beyond the Aria” program features mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (Azucena in the company’s current “II Trovatore”), baritone Quinn Kelsey (Count di Luna in “II Trovatore”) and Ryan Center soprano Laura Wilde. November 10, 7:30pm Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)334-7777, from $35.

Soumik Datta

Soumik Datta

East and West
East meets West in Fulcrum Point New Music Project’s eclectic evening of classical and contemporary Indian music and dance called “Mirror of Enlightenment” that includes “Mara,” an enlightenment tale that depicts the life of the Buddha performed by Chicago-based Indian classical dance company Kalapriya Dance.

Twenty-five Fulcrum Point musicians will merge Messiaen and Mingus with Indian composer Param Vir to present the U.S. premiere of Vir’s “Raga Fields, Concerto for Sarod and Ensemble” featuring British-Bengali sarod virtuoso Soumik Datta as soloist.

Tabla master and Indian percussionist Kalyan Pathak will collaborate with sarod player Datta and Fulcrum Point founder/conductor/trumpeter Stephen Burns for the improvisational work “Rageshri” and will perform his own work  joined by his own ensemble, the Jazz Mata Trio. The program will conclude with Shirish Korde’s “Lalit,” a duet for flute and tabla featuring Pathak and Fulcrum Point flutist Mary Stolper. November 1, 7:30pm, Millennium Park’s Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)334-7777. $20 ($10 for students).

Notable Excursions
Guitarist extraordinaire John Abercrombie will perform with his revised quartet, which includes pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron, the same personnel on Abercrombie’s latest album, “39 Steps.” Abercrombie and Copland were both members of the Chico Hamilton Quartet and the fusion jazz-rock group Dreams back in the 1970s, but both have returned to more straight-ahead jazz as this group reflects. October 30-November 2, Jazz Showcase, 806 South Plymouth, (312)360-0234, from $20.

Attempting to fuse arts, science and culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is the object of “The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres” with the Canadian period instrument ensemble Tafelmusik. Narration, choreography and music by Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Bach and Handel will be performed to a backdrop of high-definition images from the Hubble telescope. November 7, 7:30pm, University of Chicago’s Logan Center, 915 East 60th, (773)702-2787, $35 ($5 students with ID).

Newberry Consort’s “Música Barocca Mexicana” features eighteenth-century music of the New World for voices, violins, guitar, theorbo, harpsichord and cello reconstructed as performed at the cathedral in Durango, one of Mexico’s important music centers. Newly discovered masterpieces are included with many U.S. premieres of works by Ignacio Jerusalem, Santiago Billoni, Manuel de Sumaya and others. November 7-9, various locales, (773)669-7335, from $35.

Following up on its traversal of a complete Beethoven string quartet cycle two years ago and a complete Bartók string quartet cycle last season, this year the gifted and energetic Avalon Quartet is performing a complete Brahms string quartet cycle at the Art Institute. This exquisite Sunday afternoon series includes other pieces that influenced—or have been influenced by—Brahms, followed by illuminating gallery walks that tie together revolutions in music, painting and sculpture. Brahms Quartet No. 3, Op. 67 in B-flat Major and the Debussy Quartet are the pairings in this second of a four-concert season-long series. November 9, 2pm, Fullerton Hall, 111 South Michigan, (312)443-3600, free with museum admission.

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 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: 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

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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

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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 »