Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

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 »

Preview: Ramsey Lewis Trio/Chicago Jazz Festival

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Larry Gray, Ramsey Lewis, Leon Joyce


Legendary jazz pianist, composer, bandleader and broadcaster Ramsey Lewis has become a familiar presence at Ravinia in recent years, where he serves as jazz advisor to the North Shore summer music festival and is also the founder of its year-round Jazz Mentor Program. Performances within Chicago city limits have become far fewer for the Chicago native, however, and in fact, Lewis has not played at a downtown venue in over a decade, and last appeared at the Chicago Jazz Festival over a quarter of a century ago, back in 1984.

Performing with longtime collaborators Larry Gray on bass and drummer Leon Joyce as part of this year’s 32nd annual festival to celebrate Lewis’ seventy-fifth birthday—which was May 27—this unusual downtown concert marks Lewis’ Millennium Park debut and is the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s first-ever free Chicago concert. “This concert is a gift to my hometown—the city that has nurtured me and inspired me my entire life,” says Lewis in a press statement. “We are thrilled to perform at the Pritzker Pavilion surrounded by the vibrancy and awe-inspiring grandeur of the most beautiful city in the world.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Kiri Te Kanawa Farewell Recital/Ravinia

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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

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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 »