Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Chicago Jazz Philharmonic at Ten, Pierre Boulez at Ninety

Big Band, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral No Comments »
Orbert Davis

Orbert Davis

By Dennis Polkow

“When we started, the world knew me only as a jazz trumpet player,” admits Orbert Davis, the founder and artistic director of the sixty-piece Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this season. “Even the musicians were like, ‘What is he going to do, standing up there? He’s not a conductor!’ When we did our first recording, some of the sub musicians looked around and said, ‘Who wrote this?’ ‘I did!’ ”

Davis’ vision of a full-scale “third stream” ensemble has evolved over the past decade. “We think of the first stream, which is classical, and the second stream, which is jazz, but it’s difficult to understand how they come together; we tend to think of what keeps them apart.” Originally the orchestra featured both classical and jazz musicians, and the school each belonged to was obvious. Now the members have synthesized into a core group who “get it,” Davis asserts. “They are a community. I can reference [Ellington’s] ‘Jubilee Stomp’ or a Beethoven symphony and everyone knows what I’m asking for!” Read the rest of this entry »

Wisdom of Salonen: Finding a California style of composing

Classical, New Music 2 Comments »

Photo: Nicho Sodling

By Dennis Polkow

Sipping on a cappuccino in his Gold Coast hotel lobby, Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen makes a startling admission: “You know, I was seriously considering stopping conducting altogether,” he says, “or at least limiting it to a minimum. I thought I should take up a teaching position at some university in this country or in Europe and just write.”

So much for the issue of whether Salonen is a composer who conducts, or a conductor who composes. “Composing is intensely non-social,” he says. “If I’ve had a long composer period and then try to go back to conducting, the first couple of days are fairly hopeless because I get so exhausted by having all these people there and having to relate to a hundred faces in front of me rather than just sitting in my studio essentially on my own. There is no way I can make that transition easier and it became so difficult, I was ready to retreat from it.

“But there’s this one thing about conducting that I really miss when I am not doing it: working together with musicians. There is that very unique sense that you have managed to focus the energy of a hundred talented, dedicated and skilled individuals and you are witnessing this focus from the box, and all the sound, feeling and energy comes out to you. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

The other reality that makes itself clear to Salonen is that he is a different composer precisely because he is a conductor. “The actual process of becoming a conductor does change you as a composer,” says Salonen, who disagrees when I point to Pierre Boulez as a possible exception in that conducting takes time away from his composing, but that what he composes remains stylistically unaltered. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Symphony Center

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Sean Kubota

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Though he was not conducting nor appearing publicly, recuperating CSO music director Riccardo Muti has had an active administrative week at Symphony Center, overseeing auditions as well as the rescheduled finals of the first-ever International Sir Georg Solti Conducting Competition and Apprenticeship. Curiously, Muti himself first came to wide attention when he won a similar competition back in 1967, the Guido Cantelli Competition for conductors in Milan.

“When I accepted the Music Directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the first ideas that I had was to create an apprenticeship position for young conductors to come to Chicago and study both with me and also with some of my most experienced colleagues whom I have had the pleasure of inviting to conduct this wonderful Orchestra,” said Muti in a press statement.

“I feel it is very important to identify conductors early in their development and to encourage them to study, not only to understand deeply the structure and content of the music, but also to know what it is they want to convey when they stand in front of an orchestra and chorus and how to communicate it. I spoke to my good friend Valerie Solti and asked her permission to name this apprenticeship after her husband, Sir Georg Solti, who led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for many years. We named the competition and apprenticeship in his honor not only because of the great leadership he gave to this Orchestra, but also because he shared my concern that young people, when studying the craft of conducting, should develop the ability to work with singers and instrumentalists from the piano. I believe this study is crucial in the development of a complete musician, one who is able to stand in front of an orchestra with natural authority.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Top 5 of Everything 2010: Music

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Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Millennium Park/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Top 5 Classical Concerts
Riccardo Muti Inaugural Concert at Millennium Park, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Berlioz Episode in the Life of an Artist, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven Festival, Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Boulez@85, MusicNOW
Bach Christmas Oratorio, Jane Glover and Music of the Baroque Orchestra and Chorus
—Dennis Polkow

Top 5 Albums
Esperanza Spalding, “Chamber Music Society” (Telarc)
Stanley Clarke, “The Stanley Clarke Band” (Heads Up)
Os Paralamas do Sucesso, “Brasil Afora” (EMI Latin)
Alex Cuba, “Alex Cuba”
Sheryl Crow, “100 Miles from Memphis”
—Ernest Barteldes

Top 5 Albums
The National, “High Violet” (4AD)
Sun Kil Moon, “Admiral Fell Promises” (Caldo Verde)
Frightened Rabbit, “The Winter of Mixed Drinks” (Fat Cat)
Twin Shadow, “Forget” (Red General Catalog)
Vampire Weekend, “Contra” (XL)
—Tom Lynch

Read the rest of this entry »

Autumn Serenade: Boulez returns with weakened eyes yet strengthened vision

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Boulez conducts CSO in Mahler's Seventh for PBS/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Dennis Polkow

“I knew when I received ‘the call’ that something was out of the ordinary,” admits Pierre Boulez, who was on sabbatical from conducting in order to compose back in October when Chicago Symphony Orchestra management interrupted him with an SOS to step in for an ailing Riccardo Muti. “The second sentence,” he laughs, “was something like, ‘We know that you are free.’ ”

The irony was that Boulez himself was having health issues. “I had eye surgery for glaucoma that was completely unforeseen. I asked my doctors, ‘Can it wait?’ ‘No,’ they said because it was a difficult repair and they are now very happy with how it all went. I am not entirely happy with my eyes, but it is early yet. The left eye has already improved. I see, but not clearly.”

“But I did accept,” says Boulez, “for the team here, which is wonderful. And for Muti, who was at the end of his strength and was very anxious to go home to his doctor. I was in the same case with an ophthalmologist here, so I could understand him very well, wanting to get back home to his own doctor.”

Did Muti himself ever contact Boulez at any point along the process? “He was initially so de-energized, but I did get two very nice messages from him later on thanking me.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Boulez Mahler Seventh/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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While music director Riccardo Muti is reportedly hospitalized in Milan and undergoing a battery of tests to determine the underlying cause of the “extreme gastric distress” that flared up before the CSO’s October 2 Symphony Ball and that forced him to withdraw from the rest of his fall residency concerts here, more backstage drama is emerging about this week’s replacement concert.

Why would Pierre Boulez, who along with Bernard Haitink both relinquished their official administrative involvement with the CSO after Muti took over the reins, be willing to interrupt a scheduled sabbatical put aside for composition to come back and pinch hit for Muti, but with a completely different program spotlighting Boulez’ strengths rather than Muti’s?

This week’s concerts were scheduled to be taped for an October 27 “Great Performances” that was to be broadcast nationally on PBS television stations, affording the curious across the country an opportunity to experience a slice of the Muti/Chicago magic in their own homes. With Muti’s withdrawal from the rest of his fall residency, CSO management needed to come up with a conductor and a program that would not have the orchestra lose such a high-profile national exposure opportunity. As such, Mahler, which is not a Muti strength but is a CSO specialty, seemed to foot the bill perfectly. Read the rest of this entry »

Music Minus One: ‘Festa Muti’ comes to early end as ill maestro flies home to Milan

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Anne Sophie-Mutter with the CSO/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Dennis Polkow

Attentive concertgoers who were not out in the hall sipping the complimentary champagne may have noticed something a tad unusual at last Saturday evening’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra black tie “Symphony Ball” with Riccardo Muti: a chair had been placed on the conductor’s podium.

The starting time of 7pm came and went, a late start, everyone surmised. Finally, at 7:10pm, CSO Board of Trustees chair William Osborn came out and announced that the concert would be delayed “about ten minutes,” that there was “a situation backstage that we are dealing with, so please be patient.”

Heading out for more champagne, two CSO publicists I met along the way told me that “the Maestro was not feeling well,” but was expected to go on. As stagehands walked out and began placing new music on the stands to applause from impatient concertgoers, it was clear there was to be a change in repertoire, at the very least.

At 7:35pm, a pale and worried-looking CSO president Deborah Rutter came out and said that “it is with deep regret that Maestro Muti will not be appearing this evening.” There was an audible sound of disappointment before Rutter continued in a somber tone: “He came to the hall and had every intention of performing, but is not feeling well. Despite his best efforts to come out and conduct for you, he is simply unable to find the strength to be able to do so and is deeply disappointed.” Read the rest of this entry »

Boulez Future: Music’s greatest living figure looks ahead

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Festivals, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music, World Music 2 Comments »

By Dennis Polkow

Boulez.  The radical and outspoken enfant terrible who once advocated that concert halls and opera houses should be burnt to the ground as dead monuments to an irrelevant past, but who ended up being known as one of the all-time great conductors and interpreters of that past.

Boulez.  The name of the leading twelve-tone composer of his generation, the man who once advocated that serialism would become “the only musical direction of the future,” and yet who later completely abandoned it as a compositional method.

Boulez.  The frustrated artist who vowed that he would never come back to an artistic position in his native France, and yet who returned to Paris to found and lead the world’s premier experimental music research center at the Centre Pompidou for a decade and a half.

Boulez.  The defiant and arrogant lion in Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” who once attacked all established systems, but who is today as diplomatic and subdued as a pussycat and who has come to epitomize the very musical establishment he once so sharply opposed.

On the surface, at least, it would seem that Pierre Boulez is a man of considerable contradiction.  Rather, Boulez is a man of genuine paradox: a living parable and a walking twentieth-century monument.

Our greatest living figure in music, Boulez is widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most significant and innovative composers.  But there is also Boulez the conductor, the champion of new music, of technology to expand music materials, the teacher, guru to rock stars, author and lecturer of international renown; in short, a man who helped reshape the course of music after World War II on a myriad of levels. Read the rest of this entry »

Boulez for the Record

Chamber Music, Classical, Experimental, Orchestral, Record Reviews, Vocal Music 1 Comment »

By Dennis Polkow

Pierre Boulez is widely represented on recordings and videos both as a composer and as a conductor. Sony Classical has re-released virtually all of his earliest recordings in a special “Pierre Boulez Edition” released for his eighty-fifth birthday, but many of these recordings have long been supplanted. Deutsche Grammaphon is re-releasing many of its Boulez recordings in multi-disc sets this year and the CSO is even releasing an all-new “Boulez Conducts Stravinsky” disc later this month on its own CSO Resound label. The following very select list is a basic introduction to the remarkable art of Pierre Boulez:

Bartók: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3. Daniel Barenboim, soloist, Pierre Boulez and the BBC Symphony. Angel/EMI Classics. Many people thought the Bartók Piano concertos were just noise until this legendary 1970 recording forever made these works part of the standard repertory.

Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Four Orchestral Pieces, Op. 12. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez. Deutsche Grammaphon. This stellar recording swept the Grammy Awards and is the best of several Boulez/CSO recordings of the Hungarian master’s music. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Boulez@85-Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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After turning to conducting, initially as an avocation, composer Pierre Boulez was chosen by legendary conductor George Szell in the mid-1960s to become the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal guest conductor so that Szell’s audiences would be able to hear large doses of twentieth-century music that Szell himself felt were beyond his grasp as a conductor to present convincingly.  Boulez’ Cleveland recording of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” from that time revealed the piece with a clarity and power that forever changed the way the public thought about the work.

“That work is extremely important to me,” says Boulez, “but it was rarely performed even in my student days. One performance I heard then with Charles Munch, the sacrificial dance that closes the second part, was as if both the players and conductor were driving on ice; neither were convinced.”

Boulez, for his part, says that he saw the significance of “Sacre,” as he calls it from its original French title, from the moment he saw the score, and that the transparency that became the trademark of his performances was immediately apparent and he admits that his approach to conducting the piece has been the same since he first conducted it nearly half a century ago.   Read the rest of this entry »