Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: After a New York Detour, Stephen Williamson is Back Home Playing Mozart

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, News and Dish, Orchestral No Comments »
Stephen Williamson (center) conducts a master class. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Stephen Williamson/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Dennis Polkow

“Honestly, I felt like I was being shot out of a cannon,” says Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson of the day he unexpectedly landed the job. “There had been four years of auditions and the position was still vacant. I was at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and was being asked every time, ‘Please, will you come?’ My wife and I struggled with it and I told her, ‘They’re not finding anybody. I feel I need to go out there and to at least say that I tried, that I represented myself.’

“When I finally came to Chicago, I wasn’t expecting anything. All I was hoping was that I would have an opportunity to be invited to play a week with the orchestra and then, whatever happens, happens. And I could say that at least I got to play with the Chicago Symphony and that it was a great experience.”

What Williamson never expected was for music director Riccardo Muti and the audition committee to offer him the position on the spot immediately after he had concluded his audition. “I really was shocked. They did it so early in the morning because I had to fly back to do a ‘Die Walküre’ performance with Maestro [James] Levine. I was elated, but in shock, because I had to go back to my music director at the Met, play that same night and say, ‘By the way, something just happened.’ The news was already at the Met before I even showed up off the plane. Maestro Levine had requested to see me at intermission.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Sinatra Jr. Is Perfectly Frank on the Man Behind the Legend

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Frank Sinatra Jr.

Frank Sinatra Jr.

By Dennis Polkow

“There is a lot of traffic out there in this kind of show for this year,” admits Frank Sinatra Jr. on the myriad of Sinatra salutes happening throughout 2015, the centennial of his father’s birth. “Many, many people have taken it upon themselves to do this kind of thing. They can, of course, recreate the music. But because this is the one-hundredth anniversary, I felt it was very important that people also learn something about the individual.

“We’re no longer talking about a man who is a famous performer, a famous movie star. Now we’re talking about somebody who is being time-honored with a century of recognition. For that reason, I think it’s time to know that person. We already know his accomplishments, now let’s concentrate on the person.”

From the beginning of his own career some fifty years ago, Frank Jr. always performed “at least a song or two of Sinatra,” as he calls the public figure, “but I worked hard to have my own identity.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: James Conlon Bids Farewell to Ravinia, Says “Si” to Italy

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James Conlon / Photo Courtesy of Ravinia Festival

James Conlon/Photo: Ravinia Festival

By Dennis Polkow

“After I became music director eleven years ago,” says Ravinia Festival music director James Conlon, “it was so interesting how many people I would meet around the country, or Americans I would meet in Europe, that would say, ‘You know? I heard my first concerts at Ravinia.’ I started to think that everybody grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and somehow or another moved to another place in the world. It is astounding how many people of all ages were formed there, from twenty-year-olds to eighty-year-olds, and how many people Ravinia has been able to reach in its way and introduce classical music to them. Of course, the trump card of the Chicago Symphony is the best way you can do that. It was very striking to me and I am very proud to be a part of that tradition and process and hope it will continue on forever.”

Nonetheless, Conlon announced last August that the 2015 season would be his last as Ravinia music director, and that 2016 would also end his music directorship of the Cincinnati May Festival after thirty-six years. Instead, he will become the first American to ever become principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai in Turin, Italy. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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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 »

Old Days: The Band Chicago Returns to Ravinia, Properly Matured

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“I remember going to see the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia when the band was still at DePaul and standing at the railing,” recalls trumpet player Lee Loughnane of the band Chicago. “I was amazed with the brass section. I remember auditioning for the Civic Orchestra [the training orchestra of the CSO] and Adolph Herseth [longtime CSO principal trumpet] was right there, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God: I’ve got to play in front of the best there is?’ ”

Loughnane and his band mates from Chicago did eventually make it to the stage of Ravinia at the height of the band’s initial wave of popularity in August of 1972, but have not played the venue since. Late Ravinia executive director Edward Gordon described the aftermath of that concert “as if a B52 had flown by and dropped a ton of garbage over the park.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Tony Bennett/Ravinia Festival

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Anthony Dominick Benedetto, aka Tony Bennett, turned 85 earlier this month (August 3) but it’s hard to think of many other octogenarians still swinging the way that Tony is. Who else but Bennett could unite such diverse artists and icons for his 2006 “Duets” album as Barbra Streisand, Bono, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Sting, James Taylor, the Dixie Chicks, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Michael Buble, Tim McGraw, et al, to sing duets of the songs most associated with him over the last six-plus decades, not across coasts and even continents the lackluster way that Sinatra did late in his career, but one-on-one, live and in person alongside of him, working to make every phrase count? Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Puccini’s “Tosca”/Ravinia Festival

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Bryn Terfel


It has been seven years since Bryn Terfel last sang in Chicago. The Welsh bass-baritone superstar has severely curtailed his American appearances and the Met has been his first priority when he does come to the States. This week Terfel makes his long-awaited return to Chicago at Ravinia, where he had several early career triumphs.

Terfel will sing the role of Scarpia in a concert version of Puccini’s “Tosca” with soprano Patricia Racette in the title role and Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra as Cavaradossi, with Ravinia music director James Conlon conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (not the CSO chorus, however, in another Ravinia cost-cutting move).

The title and most popular aria (“Vissi d’arte”) may belong to Tosca, but in many ways, this is Scarpia’s opera, and Terfel is known for his blood-curdling portrayal and for the way that he toys with Tosca and creates sadistic sexual tension with her. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Deborah Voigt & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Ravinia Festival

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Soprano Deborah Voigt has been singing a lot of Puccini recently at Lyric Opera, a rather dull “Tosca” two seasons ago and a shoot-’em-up Minnie in “La fanciulla del West” earlier this year. But it is Voigt’s Wagner and Richard Strauss that remain her bread-and-butter roles and, among today’s singers, in a class by themselves. Happily, this rare orchestral concert appearance will offer a compact evening of some of Voigt’s most memorable portrayals with the additional benefit of giving the CSO a chance to offer an evening of its bread-and-butter repertoire as well, under former Ravinia music director and new National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach.

Fresh on Voigt’s triumph at the Met with her first-ever Brünnhilde, she reprises Sieglinde’s “Du bist der Lenz” from Act I of “Die Walküre” and offers Elizabeth’s Act II aria “Dich teure Halle” from “Tannhäuser.” Orchestral Wagner on the program includes the Overture to “Tannhäuser” and “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from “Götterdämmerung.

Voigt’s Richard Strauss will be represented by “Ich kann nicht sitzen” from “Elektra” (“Chrysothemsis’ scene”) and by the Finale of “Salome,” one of Voigt’s signature roles and some of the most rapturous music ever composed. Orchestral Richard Strauss includes the “Dance of the Seven Veils.”

Also on the program is the Overture to Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and Leonore’s Act I “Abscheulicher!” (Dennis Polkow)

July 9, 7:30pm at Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook & Green Bay Roads, Highland Park, (847)266-5100. $15-$70.

Preview: Andre Watts & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Ravinia Festival

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It has been seventy-five years since the Chicago Symphony Orchestra began its annual residency at the Ravinia Festival, an anniversary which is being celebrated throughout what is, ironically, one of the CSO’s most truncated at Ravinia. This week marks one of the first CSO Ravinia concerts of the summer, which sees the return of former Ravinia music director and new National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach for a series of concerts.

2011 marks the bicentennial of Franz Liszt, which Ravinia is marking all season long but especially in this opening week, where both piano concertos are being presented: No. 1 on the CSO season opening itself (July 7) with soloist Lang Lang, and tonight’s performance of the Second Piano Concerto with soloist Andre Watts. The contrast could not be more extreme: whereas Lang Lang epitomizes the kind of empty virtuosity that many stereotype Liszt as also representing, Watts has always taken a more cerebral approach and has approached Liszt as the true innovator and revolutionary that he was and in the right hands such as those of Watts, can still be. In another cost-cutting move, segments of both concerts will consist of non-orchestral solo piano pieces featuring the soloists as well, sort of built-in and pre-programmed encores: Lang will be performing Chopin, Watts will be performing Liszt.

Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture will open tonight’s performance and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” will close it out. (Dennis Polkow)

July 8, 8pm at Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook & Green Bay Roads, Highland Park, (847)266-5100. $10-$70.


Muti Musing: The CSO’s new maestro looks ahead to making music for Chicago

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By Dennis Polkow

The excitement—not only throughout the city, but across the world—is palpable: Riccardo Muti, the maestro of the moment, is coming to Chicago, this time in earnest and for good. The long limbo that began when Daniel Barenboim abruptly left his position as longtime Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director in May of 2006 is ending, at long last. Leninesque banners of Muti dot the city proclaiming “Festa Muti,” fall arts previews all spotlight his inaugural appearances, music critics are traversing continents to cover his concerts in various languages.

Muti is scheduled to arrive in Chicago September 15—well after press time—but the curiosity as to what the man himself is feeling as what is already being dubbed “the Muti era” actually begins here prompts us to reach out to the maestro by phone in his suburban Salzburg villa to find out. The rest of us may be excited, but Muti, as we have seen here now on numerous press announcements and conversations, can be as funny and mischievous as a schoolboy, having one Italian paper report on the constant one-liners of his last press conference here under the headline, “Un clown nommé Riccardo Muti.” Perhaps it is the mountain air—“It has been cloudy and rainy here for forty days”—but today, however, Muti is initially introspective and somber as he discusses what he calls “his last adventure” as music director. Read the rest of this entry »