Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Aimard Returns to Boulez, Muti Mourns Patner

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, In Memoriam, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Pierre Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard / Photo: Roger Mastroianni

Pierre Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard / Photo: Roger Mastroianni

By Dennis Polkow

When French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard came to Chicago in 1986, it was as a member of Pierre Boulez’s l’Ensemble InterContemporain for a week of performances. At that time, Aimard had already been playing with the Ensemble since its inception a decade earlier.

“It was such an exciting time,” Aimard recalls. “Boulez had been active abroad and was living in Germany but the moment he came back to France, there was so much anticipation.” Boulez did not disappoint: he founded the Paris-based IRCAM, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music, with the goal of enlarging the domain of materials used for music. That goal was embraced by musicians of all genres and even brought Frank Zappa to Boulez.

When Boulez himself asked Aimard to join IRCAM’s new resident ensemble, “it was a privilege, and I thought I would be there for a couple of years.” He would remain for eighteen years, before finally setting off to have a career of his own in 1994. “I was overwhelmed by the power of his artistry, of his musicianship, his fabulous intellect, his work ethic and the commitment that he gave to all of the pieces he was serving. It was a happy eighteen years.” Read the rest of this entry »

Bridge Builder: Celebrating Jazz Composer William Russo for his Eclecticism and Influence

Big Band, Chicago Artists, Festivals, Jazz No Comments »

By Dennis PolkowWilliam Russo

Columbia College is honoring its first-ever full-time faculty member and the legendary founder of its music department, the late William Russo, with a two-day festival called “Celebrating William Russo: Artist & Educator.”

A Chicago native, Russo’s influence and legacy must be measured in decades and across genres and disciplines. Having studied with pianist Lennie Tristano as a boy, Russo was composing music of his own as a teenager and soon leading jazz bands.

Although Russo joined Stan Kenton’s forty-piece Innovations Orchestra as a trombonist in the early 1950s, he ushered in a pioneering style of orchestral jazz as arranger and composer for that ensemble that remains unparalleled.

Iconic Russo works such as “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West” and “Frank Speaking”—both of which will be performed as part of a December 7 concert of Russo’s works at the Jazz Showcase—spotlight Russo’s fascination with cross-fertilizing multiple forms.

“People may not realize how much of a surprising and interesting influence Bill has been on American music,” assesses bluesman Corky Siegel, himself one who loves to bridge musical worlds, and who considers Russo his mentor in doing so. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Beethoven Festival: LOVE 2013

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Festivals, Rock No Comments »


When Beethoven died, John Quincy Adams was President of the United States. Illinois had been a state for less than a decade, and Chicago wouldn’t be incorporated for another seven years. That Chicago will play host to the world premiere of a Beethoven love song is astounding by all measures, none more so than the respective age of the composition, older than the city where it will be performed for the first time. To celebrate the momentous occasion, The International Beethoven Project, led by President and Artistic Director George Lepauw, have assembled a broad swath of love-inspired performers, including Wilco’s phenomenal drummer Glenn Kotche, and Gray, a band started by the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The programming often takes musicians to task, asking them to perform variations on a theme, most potently Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” which will get special piano and experimental electronic treatment resulting in a great number of entirely new compositions. And though the festival is his namesake, Beethoven is not the only composer represented. Matthias Pintscher, music director of Paris’ Ensemble InterContemporain, will conduct Bach’s “Saint-John’s Passion,” Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” and “Overture to Tristan and Isolde,” and Mozart’s “Gran Partita,” all as a buildup to his take on Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral Symphony).” Read the rest of this entry »

Jailhouse Bach: Riccardo Muti offers Freedom of the Soul

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

At the Illinois Youth Center/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Dennis Polkow

The Gospel of Matthew states, “I was in prison, and you visited me.” It’s an adage Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti takes very seriously. He has visited prison a number of times in his native Italy, and during the first days of his inaugural season last year as music director it was a top priority for him.

“The experience was wonderful, fantastic,” Muti said of his first visit to the Illinois Youth Center in west suburban Warrenville, an incarceration facility for female juveniles, where he gave a concert and first visited with the inmates in September of 2010. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Kiri Te Kanawa Farewell Recital/Ravinia

Classical, Vocal Music No Comments »


Because New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa was a protégée of legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Sir Georg Solti, Chicago has heard this once-reigning diva at virtually every stage of her career. That included a gala “farewell” two years ago with the orchestra so long associated with her. As reported then, no one says it’s over until the diva says it’s over, and in this case, since Te Kanawa is still in superb voice, she is giving us something as an additional “farewell” that was a real rarity when she was in her prime: an intimate recital.

Among the highlights of Te Kanawa’s many performances here was the glorious Mahler Fourth that she performed and recorded here under Solti and the CSO, and no less than two performances of Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello,” –one for Solti’s seventieth birthday gala in 1987 with Placido Domingo, another alongside for the first and only time that Luciano Pavarotti ever sang the role for Solti’s own “farewell” performances as CSO music director in 1991, where Te Kanawa sat onstage traumatized by the fact that Pavarotti was attempting to camouflage eating entire chickens onstage when he wasn’t singing and was tossing the chicken bones on the floor next to her. But hey, while Te Kanawa was rehearsing for the world premiere of “Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio” at Liverpool Cathedral, she freaked out the former Beatle when she began actually scolding tourists who were in her line of sight yards away, asking them to “move along” as if she owned the place. Late and mischievous tenor Jerry Hadley thought the whole thing was hysterical and was doing his best to keep a straight face. Ah yes, they don’t make divas like this anymore. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Complete Beethoven Concertos/Jorge Federico Osorio & Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Artists, Classical, Orchestral No Comments »

Jorge Federico Osorio


Last month’s downtown Beethoven Festival that had departing CSO principal conductor Bernard Haitink traversing all nine of the Beethoven symphonies across three weeks of concerts gets a magnificent and compact summer cadenza at Ravinia with a rare and wonderful opportunity to experience all five Beethoven piano concertos across two consecutive concerts.

Mexican-born pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, who has long made Highland Park his home but who had to prove himself the world over before being taken seriously as a rank concretizer  of choice here will be the soloist, a coup for all involved. Ravinia is loosely attempting to tie in the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence to Osorio’s heritage, but an opportunity to hear a complete Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle with a pianist of Osorio’s caliber needs no such gimmickry and is a major musical statement in and of itself.

Mozart is often credited with creating the piano concerto as we know it, but it was Beethoven who not only gave the orchestra an expanded and eventually a role equal to that of the soloist, but who made the piano concerto a more personal vehicle of self-expression and emotion, marking the transition from Classicism to Romanticism. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Beethoven Festival III & IV/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Those lucky enough to have heard the debut concerts of the CSO’s Beethoven Festival last week heard something very special indeed as the orchestra offered some of its best playing for outgoing CSO principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink of his entire tenure here. Particularly gratifying, whether by accident or design, was the noticeable absence of some of the most conspicuous principal players who have routinely blighted concerts under the Haitink era as their skills have deteriorated. Haitink uses a mid-sized orchestra and offers some surprising tempos, much more moderate than you might expect for some of the uptempo movements and brisk, indeed, sometimes almost breakneck, during moderate and slow movements.

This week Haitink and the CSO turn their attention to two groups of symphonies: Nos. 4 and 6, the “Pastoral,” and Nos. 1 and 7. Beethoven’s First Symphony has often been described as “Haydnesque,” and while it is the most conventional of his symphonies, from its opening chords we are in a different sound world than the symphonies of Haydn, or Mozart, for that matter. It is a shame that we are hearing it so late in the cycle where its full impact is diminished; it would have made far more sense to present Symphonies 1 and 3 in the first program, 2 and 5 in the second, and then 4 and 6, which are being paired together, and then 8 and 7, with the Ninth on its own, as it will be next week. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Beethoven Festival II/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Artists, Classical, Orchestral No Comments »


The second program in Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s traversal of all nine of the symphonies of Beethoven pairs the less familiar Symphony No. 2 with the iconic Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica,” a work that is often cited as making the shift from eighteenth-century Classicism to nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Yet there is already a whiff of Beethoven’s musical revolution in the smaller-scale Second Symphony, even if it came to its full fruition in the large-scale Third Symphony, an avant-garde work that occupied Beethoven for five years and indeed broke every convention of the Classical era. Critics and audiences did not know what to make of a work that, for starters, was more than twice the length of any symphony of Haydn and Mozart. But its real revolution is what Beethoven did with the stalwart sonata form that had so dominated the era, the ABA form of exposition, development and recapitulation which in Beethoven’s hands are blown up and the pieces sometimes scattered almost beyond recognition. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: P.D.Q. Bach Musical Mayhem/Peter Schickele & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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P.D.Q. Bach is the brainchild of “Professor” Peter Schickele, who has made a forty-five-year plus comedy career out of “discovering lost” works of this supposedly twenty-first and illegitimate son of Johann Sebastian Bach. Being the funniest and most popular music satirist since Spike Jones and Victor Borge has been both a curse and a blessing for Schickele, a contemporary composer and broadcaster in his own right, whose own notoriety has been so eclipsed by his comic genius that it has been nine long years since you could see Schickele perform in Chicago as the good Professor that introduces lost works by the faux composer.

What remains remarkable about Schickele is that when he performs as an ambassador for P.D.Q. Bach, he can be appreciated on every level: as a physical and slapstick comedian, even a young child will find him funny. And yet, the most sophisticated classical music lover will find immense cerebral humor by his cross-fertilizations of high art with unexpected lowbrow and bawdy tastelessness along with his lampooning of everything held sacred in a world that takes itself far too seriously.  And yet through the whole thing, Schickele plays it all so credibly, so straight, that there is always the possibility of someone taking it all in as is. Read the rest of this entry »

Natural Selection: Inside the search for music director of America’s most diverse orchestra

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

Photo: Ken Carl

By Dennis Polkow

“The news here is that no music director has been appointed yet,” says Chicago Sinfonietta founder and music director Paul Freeman, anticipating curiosity about whether or not there is an end in sight to an ongoing and speculative process. “In other words,” he laughs, “I’m still here.”

Freeman, 74, announced his retirement in March of 2009, in part so that he could remain actively involved with the orchestra that he founded and has so carefully nurtured and tendered for more than two decades during the process of locating his successor.

“I realize that there is a time to be born—and I don’t want to say the other—but after nearly twenty-five years, everybody needs a new breath. I won’t say a breath of fresh air, but a new breath,” says Freeman. “This is one of the elements that helped this orchestra develop as an artistic institution, that we’ve kept everything fresh and new. I am not saying that I feel that the relationship between the orchestra and myself has ended, I don’t feel that way: I still like the involvement. But there comes a time when you have to think of securing the future.”   Read the rest of this entry »