By Dennis Polkow
The “ought” or “aught” decade, as many are now calling it, has seen gargantuan changes to the landscape of classical music in Chicago. A decade ago, Chicago still had two classical music radio stations, but the air space for WNIB became too valuable a commodity for the family that owned it to resist selling out; WFMT wasted no time in changing its motto from “Chicago’s fine arts station” to “Chicago’s classical station.”
Compact discs were still the media of choice a decade ago, and despite the fact that few downloading options exist that preserve the dynamic range necessary to faithfully reproduce the subtleties of the genre, more and more classical listeners are now embracing non-software listening options.
Chicago, which used to set the industry standard for classical recordings and Grammy Awards, saw a huge reduction in recording activity overall, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra having lost its recording contract under Daniel Barenboim. Pierre Boulez continued to make recordings here with the orchestra now and then for Deutsche Grammaphon, but the CSO became so fed up with the situation that it began releasing its own recordings on its own CSO Resound label, despite the fact that, by then, it had no music director.
Barenboim’s sudden and embittered departure from the CSO ironically came at a time when his artistic prowess with the Orchestra had reached its height during what had always been a controversial tenure here, and was ultimately a casualty of a combination of factors. These included reduced ticket sales, the loss of a recording contract and loss of CSO radio broadcasts, but most significantly, the loss of the boisterous general manager who had brought him to the CSO, Henry Fogel. Fogel had been the golden boy of American impresarios, but the business of orchestral management changed drastically after funding dried up following 9-11, and Fogel found himself unable to keep the Orchestra financially sound, which had always been his principal strength. His mysterious “retirement” and reappearance as the president of the American Symphony Orchestra League saved face, but his departure left Barenboim without his protector, and Barenboim and new CSO president Deborah Card quickly found themselves at odds when Card wanted Barenboim to take a more active role in fundraising and community activities.
One of the biggest losses of the decade came early on when Thomas S. Wikman, founder and nearly thirty-year music director of Music of the Baroque, was dumped by his own board. That group quickly lost sight of its original goals, which were to present Baroque music (music of the Classical era now dominates its repertoire under Mozart specialist Jane Glover) across architecturally and acoustically significant neighborhood churches throughout the area (the group now only regularly performs at the cavernous and secular downtown Harris Theatre and one North Side church). Taking up the slack and becoming the first area period instrument orchestra in nearly a decade, Baroque Band began offering concerts in more intimate venues. Bella Voce nearly went under when its music director Anne Heider retired, but was able to reform under new music director Andrew Lewis and is sounding better than ever.
The most exciting development in Chicago opera was the arrival of Brian Dickie at Chicago Opera Theater, returning the company to its former glory and even vastly surpassing it. COT had always been the most innovative opera company in the city, but for a time in the 1990s, Lyric Opera general director Ardis Krainik had copied its success with her “Towards the 21st Century” initiative that had presented one contemporary American and one contemporary European opera per season. Once Krainik had retired and the more conservative William Mason took over, innovation at Lyric became a rarity, and the company returned to its Italian-repertoire Carol Fox-era “La Scala West” reputation, with occasional and refreshing exceptions. The biggest area opera events of the decade were the revival of the complete Wagner “Ring” cycle at Lyric, an event unlikely to repeat itself during the Mason era, and COT’s performances of John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” which so impressed the composer that he conducted another opera of his own the following season, at COT, not Lyric. Period instrument performances by Jane Glover at COT of early music and Mozart operas are what initially brought her to Chicago.
A decade ago, Ralph Shapey’s Contemporary Chamber Players and the CUBE Ensemble were the only local groups regularly performing new music, but a change has occurred in recent years that has seen groups such as eighth blackbird, ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) and the Pacifica Quartet take up residence here.
Another wonderful area success story has been the ever-increasing importance and presence of Jim Ginsburg’s Cedille Records, now nearly twenty years old. Ginsburg, a University of Chicago law school dropout whose mother is a Supreme Court Justice, records locally and has garnered an international reputation as a purveyor of Chicago talent and careful producer; his efforts won the label its first-ever and much deserved first Grammy Award last year.
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org