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August 2014
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Sax and the City

Ashu with an alto saxophone

Impromptu, Thursday at 3:00 pm

Northwestern graduate Ashu is making his rounds as a classical saxophone player. This season he will travel to South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, New Zealand, Russia, England, and Finland, among many other stops. He’s won competitions around the world, edging out violinists and pianists. The case he makes for an instrument that’s uncommon to the classical arena is a strong one.

From Charlie Parker to Kenny G, John Coltrane to Clarence Clemons, the sultry sounds of the saxophone have been a mainstay for American music. Many have praised the saxophone’s vocalism, range of color, and expressivity. Nevertheless, it’s been a tough road for classical soloists.

Every classical saxophonist knows all the licks from the big orchestral pieces: Lieutenant Kijé, An American in Paris, Boléro, Pictures at an Exhibition. But in some towns, it’s one player who gets all the orchestral jobs (orchestras outsource sax parts rather than keeping a player on the roster). There just aren’t too many pieces that call for one; and it’s a competitive field.

One might ask, why is that?

First of all, the saxophone wasn’t invented until 1814, effectively missing every composer from Beethoven and before. But looking at the origins of the instrument, according to, inventor Adolphe Sax was responding to an imbalance between brass, woodwinds, and strings. “…the brasses were overpowering the woodwinds, and the winds were overpowering the strings…The sound that he was seeking would lie between the clarinet’s woodwind sound, and the trumpet’s brass tone. Sax combined the body of a brass instrument and the mouthpiece of a woodwind instrument, and the saxophone was born.”

The problem with the saxophone, if one can call it that, is precisely its volume and rich color. In an orchestral setting, the saxophone tends to cover the sounds of other instruments in an ensemble. Still, Hector Berlioz, who is regarded as one of the great orchestrators, became an early proponent of the instrument, not so much in his own orchestral textures, but in journals and in an 1844 Paris concert in which he featured the saxophone.

About that time, other Frenchmen began writing pieces for the sax, but it wasn’t until the jazz age that the instrument really blossomed, holding its own alongside solo brass instruments and trap sets.

Sometimes in music, an extraordinary player comes along who inspires composers to write for a specific instrument. It happened for the clarinet, when Mozart befriended the clarinet-playing Stadler brothers. Another clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld, got works out of Brahms when the old man had quit composing. Rostropovich inspired cello concertos from Britten, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.

Presently, the young saxophonist Ashu is working his way through the sax repertoire, and even making some of his own transcriptions. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this career.

Ashu will give a recital at Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang on Thursday, August 28 at 6:00 pm. He’ll play music by Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Villa-Lobos, and more. Ashu will give a WFMT Impromptu in the newly renovated Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio on Thursday, August 21 at 3:00 pm (one week prior to the Ravinia concert).

When Pink Floyd Meets Mingus and Bach


Live from St. James Cathedral, Tuesday at 5:45 pm

It’s hard to peg Chicago composer/guitarist Jason Seed, other than as a well-rounded musician. As such, he delights in music and doesn’t worry so much about iTunes categories.

Jason Seed’s credits include jazz bands, rock bands, collaborations with Baroque Band and Bill Frisell. He’s also been around the “new music” scene, playing composers like Michael Torke.

He performs around Chicago with the Jason Seed Stringtet, a group featuring himself on guitars and string players from the Chicago and Milwaukee Symphonies.

This week, Jason Seed dons his composer’s hat. In a piece commissioned by the Rush Hour Concerts, he will help the organization celebrate its 15th anniversary, an occasion which has proven to be bittersweet with the recent and sudden passing of Rush Hour Concerts founder Deborah Sobol.

In a Q and A with WFMT, Jason Seed talks about the piece, which has its world premiere at Tuesday’s Rush Hour concert.


The Jason Seed Stringtet

Tell us about the new piece being written for Rush Hour. Title? What’s it like?

At Rush Hour is my musical sketch of the development of an organization of people with a common goal. Each section is written with some general stages in mind:

1. There’s an intro that represents the formation of the idea.

2. The first section is basically the idea starting to solidify, define and reform itself within a certain definition.

3. The next bit has more of a folk/jazz/gypsy-ish feel and represents the work aspect of the organization, and when that effort really takes hold. Things get much bolder and outspoken, confident, and strong.

4. The previous section ends feeling unsure of itself – maybe something bad has happened within the organization. This leads to a cadenza for guitar that quotes J.S. Bach’s 4th invention and is an homage to Debbie Sobol (the fourth invention was a favorite teaching piece of hers and was the first one I learned on piano years ago).

5. This all leads to a sad off-kilter tango. This is the organization finding its feet while feeling the loss of its founder.

6. The last section is the reformation of the organization, with a new leader at the helm, as it carries on Debbie’s vision.

How did you come up with the name “Stringtet”? Is that supposed to mean inspired by chamber groups of the past, but with a little something extra?

Stringtet is a way of describing the group without tacking a number on it. That’s honestly about it; although I think it does get a chamber music idea across.

How would you describe the Jason Seed Stringtet? What are the major influences?

My major influences are Astor Piazzolla, J.S. Bach, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Steve Reich, (early) Pink Floyd, (some) Stravinsky, and many others.

The Jason Seed Stringtet performs At Rush Hour in a concert starting at 5:45 pm on Tuesday evening at St. James Cathedral. WFMT’s live broadcast of the concert will be hosted by Dave Schwan.

Passings: Licia Albanese, Carlo Bergonzi

Licia Albanese as Cio-Cio-San in "Madama Butterfly"

Licia Albanese as Cio-Cio-San in "Madama Butterfly"

Carlo Bergonzi, July 13, 1924-July 25, 2014
Licia Albanese, July 22, 1909-August 15, 2014

He gave more than 300 performances at the Metropolitan Opera. She exceeded 400. Two Italian-born, 20th century opera stars passed away in recent weeks: tenor Carlo Bergonzi and soprano Licia Albanese.

A star for the soprano on Hollywood Boulevard

A star for the soprano on Hollywood Boulevard

Carlo Bergonzi as Radames in 1956 at the Metropolitan Opera

Carlo Bergonzi as Radames in Verdi’s Aida, Metropolitan Opera, 1956

Albanese and Bergonzi together in a Metropolitan Opera production

Albanese and Bergonzi together in a Metropolitan Opera production

Bergonzi in particular had a long performance history in Chicago, making his American debut at Lyric Opera in 1955; while Albanese worked primarily in New York and San Francisco, becoming an American citizen in 1945.


Larry Johnson, host of WFMT’s Arias and Songs, reflects on each performer:

“The world of opera has lost two superb and beloved artists in just a few weeks. Carlo Bergonzi was a leading international tenor in a time of such giants as Jussi Bjoerling and Franco Corelli. He also made numerous appearances in Chicago at Lyric Opera.

Soprano Licia Albanese was a part of American cultural life for seventy five years.  Another truly great artist, renowned for her Verdi and Puccini interpretations, chosen by none other than Arturo Toscanini for his radio broadcasts, and friend of WFMT’s own Andy Karzas.


Licia Albanese pictured with tenor Saimir Pirgu (Don Ottavio in the Ravinia production of Don Giovanni)


Carlo Bergonzi, Riccardo Muti, and Fiorenza Cossotto


In recent years, Licia Albanese turned her energy toward future generations of performers, giving master classes and providing assistance to young singers. About the foundation she created for that purpose, she wrote: “I have been fortunate to have had a long and wonderful career as an international opera singer since I made my debut in Milan in 1934. Following my debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1940, I have had the privilege of singing…17 roles in 16 operas for 26 seasons with the world’s finest singers on the stage of that house…In appreciation of my successful career, in 1974 I founded the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation to assist in passing on the world’s operatic legacy to the next generation of opera singers.”

In 2013, Anthony Clark Evans of Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center was a beneficiary of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, taking the top prize in the vocal competition.

Larry Johnson’s Arias & Songs will remember Licia Albanese on Saturday, September 6th, and Carlo Bergonzi on Saturday, September 20th.

Video: William Bolcom and Grant Park

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom

It’s fitting that the Grant Park Music Festival should commission a piece by William Bolcom to celebrate its 80th anniversary. The Festival and the composer have had a long relationship. In fact, it was a 1986 Grant Park Orchestra performance of Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience that cemented his relationship to the windy city, when then Lyric Opera General Director Ardis Krainik decided on the spot to hitch Lyric’s wagon to the American composer. That turned into a twenty-year relationship during which Bolcom wrote three operas for Lyric.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the 76-year-old composer offers Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra Millennium, a concerto for orchestra to commemorate the 80th anniversary season.

WFMT’s live broadcast of the Friday concert begins at 6:30 pm.

Today’s Mexican Composer

Mario Lavista, born in Mexico City, 1943

Mario Lavista, born in Mexico City, 1943

Sunday at 3:00 pm

This week, WFMT’s Fiesta!, the popular Latin American music series hosted by Elbio Barilari, zeros in on the new music scene in Mexico. Of course there have been a number of prominent composers to come out of Mexico, like Carlos Chávez, Manuel Ponce, and Silvestre Revueltas. There has also been a renewed enthusiasm for the Mexican Baroque, which is evident at early music festivals – but this week’s show looks at the living.

Federico Ibarra

Federico Ibarra, born in Mexico City, 1946


Leonardo Coral, born in Mexico City, 1962










This week Elbio Barilari presents a series of pieces by some of Mexico’s top composers today. He recently answered some questions about Mexico’s new music scene:


Composer and WFMT program host Elbio Barilari

You’re doing a show on living Mexican composers. Do they sound Mexican to you or are we so well-connected today that regional flavors have been minimized? 

Some of the Mexican pieces included in this program are based on elements of the native and popular music from their country, yes. Some others don’t, however, they are not less Mexican than the others. I also would say that pieces that do present elements of Mexican native and/or folkloric music are not less “universal” for that reason.


Manuel de Elías, born in 1939, founded the Music Institute at the University of Veracruz and the Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra

Who do you think are the most promising of these composers? Are they getting performances outside of Mexico?

Fortunately, they are all very famous, they passed longtime ago the state of promises. They all get performances in Mexico and overseas. Mario Lavista, for example, is one of the most well-respected living composers around the world. With names such as Manuel Ponce, Silvestre Revueltas, and Carlos Chávez, Mexico has been a musical powerhouse in the past and there are several world-class Mexican living composers right now.

In April, WFMT’s Seth Boustead traveled to Mexico City to sample the new music scene. Listen to the programs: Part 1 and Part 2.

Video Exclusive with Ravinia Soloist Saimir Pirgu

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu

He’s a favorite with Chicago’s maestros. In March, Saimir Pirgu sang Lucia de Lammermoor with James Conlon at the Los Angeles Opera. In July, it was the Verdi Requiem with Riccardo Muti. He returns in February for a Mozart Requiem with Mr. Muti; and this week he joins Mr. Conlon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia for Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “Conductors like to work with people they know very well. After the first experience with James in 2005, I think, in Bologna, he took me to L.A., and then we’ve worked together in other places like in Florence.” The 33-year-old Albanian tenor grins, “Around James or around Muti, you meet in different countries.”

Saimir Pirgu singing the Verdi Requiem with Riccardo Muti on Monday, July 6 at Redipuglia, the Italian World War I memorial. The concert marked the 100 anniversary of the outbreak of WW I.

Saimir Pirgu singing the Verdi Requiem with Riccardo Muti on Sunday, July 6 at Redipuglia, the Italian World War I memorial. The concert marked the 100 anniversary of the outbreak of WW I.

There’s a certain familiarity a seasoned tenor has, not only with conductors and other singers, but with his roles. He’s sung Don Giovanni in Vienna, Verona, Paris, and in other European capitals. Even with the very limited rehearsal time for these Ravinia performances at the Martin Theatre, the role of Don Ottavio, for him, only grows deeper, which might come as a surprise to some.

“Well, you usually think of Don Ottavio [the tenor role in Don Giovanni] as a sort of sappy, wimpy guy.” That’s according WFMT’s Carl Grapentine, who has given a number of lectures on Don Giovanni.

Placido Domingo, James Conlon, and Saimir Pirgu at LA Opera

Placido Domingo, James Conlon, and Saimir Pirgu at LA Opera

Pirgu sees it differently. From a recent conversation with WFMT, it’s clear he’s come to identify with his character as the everyman, as opposed to the reckless title character. “Don Giovanni is not Casanova. For me, Don Giovanni doesn’t like women. He just uses them.” Pirgu’s own character, Don Ottavio, differs in a way that’s “huge.” “When you think that your role needs to be more quiet than Don Giovanni. This big difference between Don Ottavio and Don Giovanni is our life…I need to make a man that loses everything. I don’t know if I will be married to Donna Anna, and the Commendatore has died…and the biggest problem: Don Giovanni is a good friend.”

More on Saimir Pirgu and James Conlon.

Performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni are Thursday and Saturday at the Ravinia Festival. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro are Friday and Sunday.


Classic “Cav and Pag”

Italian tenor Franco Corelli

Italian tenor Franco Corelli

Tuesday, August 12 at 8:00 pm

“Cav and Pag” almost sounds like a Napa Valley blend; it’s actually opera-lover lingo for Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni and Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo. For lots of reasons, those two operas are bedfellows, and have been for more than 100 years.


Lucine Amara as Mimi

According to Tuesday Night Opera host Peter van de Graaff, “Pagliacci was written because of the success of Cavalleria.” Premiered in 1890 and ’92 respectively, “each opera is only one act long, and doesn’t make for a full evening.” Something has to fill out the program; and these two operas are “smash hits – the only hits by either composer.”


Brooklyn-born American tenor Richard Tucker






American soprano Eileen Farrell

Smash hits, they are. First performed together at the Metropolitan Opera in 1893, the pairing continually cycles back onto stages around the world. “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci is among the most popular arias of all time.

This week, Peter van de Graaff shares the spoils of a recording recently issued by Sony Classics, historic performances from the Met’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts. According to Peter, “you just look at the casts – they’re pretty impressive. This recording promises a great night of opera.”


American contralto Lili Chookasian


Italian baritone Anselmo Colzani

“Cav and Pag” both fall into the opera subgenre known as versimo, which Peter calls, “…blood and guts – it’s what’s happening to ordinary people in the streets, as opposed to members of the nobility.”


Why You Should Hear this Composer

Christopher Theofanidis

Live broadcast, Friday at 7:30 pm

The glass ceiling between living composers and those of a hundred years ago seems to be splintering. One of the principal agents is Dallas-native Christopher Theofanidis. He is one of the most sought-after composers today, with performances by over seventy orchestras worldwide. While he’s had plenty of attention from major orchestras, not to mention commissions by two of the nation’s largest opera companies (Houston and San Francisco), he’s also connecting with audiences in smaller towns, like Shreveport, Biloxie, and Sheboygan.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon selected Theofanidis’s First Symphony for an NPR feature “5 American Symphonies You Should know” saying, “This is music that can stand alone on its gestures and harmonic development, and also convey a profound emotional journey through 35 roller coaster minutes. It is joy, agony, discovery and exclamation — a statement of life in the 21st Century.”

This weekend, Theofanidis’s latest score, The Legend of the Northern Lights for orchestra and narrator, receives its world premiere performances on Friday and Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. Lyric Opera Orchestra violist Frank Babbitt narrates the children’s story as projections of the aurora borealis beam onto an enormous screen above the orchestra.

Listen to the WFMT Arts Feature produced by Lisa Flynn with commentary by astronomer José Salgado and the Christopher Theofanidis.

View more on Dr. Salgado and the northern lights phenomenon.

WFMT broadcasts the Friday concert live starting at 7:30 pm. The concert includes Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. Carlos Kalmar conducts.

This Week LA, Next Week Ravinia

A Hollywood Moment: actor and director Woody Allen visits with James Conlon and Saimir Pirgu backstage at the LA Opera

A Hollywood Moment: actor and director Woody Allen visits with James Conlon and Saimir Pirgu backstage at the LA Opera

LA Opera, Saturday at 12:00 pm

Two of the three principals on Saturday’s Los Angeles Opera broadcast of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor are in Highland Park these days, preparing to perform Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Ravinia’s Martin Theatre on August 14. James Conlon and tenor Saimir Pirgu are deep into preparations for the production, which is allotted just one week of rehearsal time. Conlon will conduct two Mozart operas, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro on August 14 -17.


Tenor Saimir Pirgu, c. Fadil Berisha

The third principal of the LA broadcast, Albina Shagimuratova, gave Chicago a Lucia preview last fall in Millennium Park, thrilling the crowd of some 14,000 fans gathered for the Stars of Lyric Opera concert.


Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia, c. Leonid Semenyuk

More on Albina Shagimuratova.

Saturday’s broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor was recorded at LA’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this past March. Ravinia’s music director James Conlon also holds the reins in Los Angeles, where he’s been music director since 2006.

Siamir Pirgu sang Bach’s B minor Mass with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a year ago, and the World War I centennial concert with Mr. Muti in Ravenna, Italy last month.

More on Saimir Pirgu.

Saimir Pirgu performs with Christopher Maltman, Tamara Wilson, David Bižić, Aga Mikolaj, Ailyn Pérez, and Jonathan Michie. James Conlon conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Ravinia on Thursday, August 14.


Albina Shagimuratova and Saimir Pirgu

“Relevant Tones” Thinks Global, Acts Local

"Relevant Tones" host Seth Boustead

"Relevant Tones" host Seth Boustead

Sunday at 5:00 pm

Chicago composer Seth Boustead thought he was well-networked and well-positioned to create a local new music show for WFMT with producer Jesse McQuarters – that was then. He’s had to adjust his thinking a bit.

In the last year, Relevant Tones went national and is now heard on radio stations across the United States. As for the source material, it’s been like tugging the yarn of a gigantic sweater. Boustead is finding there are composers everywhere, busily writing for performers who are hungry for something new.

This week, Relevant Tones continues its series “In the Field,” in which Seth and Jesse spend time getting to know composers and pieces in other regions. So far they’ve touched upon Mexico and Finland; this week, they focus on Ireland where the government has put national resources behind its composers.

Listen to podcasts of Relevant Tones.

Recently Seth Boustead discussed some of the places he’s gone to find composers.

You’ve recently attended some new music festivals. Tell us about them.

Mizzou and the New York Phil Biennial. As a composer I never really applied to these things and it’s only been recently that Relevant Tones has had the wherewithal to get invited and to travel to them so this is all very new and very exciting!

Do you know the line from “New York, New York,” “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.” Is there a festival like that for composers?

There’s no one festival like the Van Cliburn Competition for pianists in which your reputation is secure if you win it.  In fact the festivals for composers don’t have competitions or awards so it’s a very different format.  The idea is to network, meet other composers, and hear your music performed by high level ensembles in a supportive environment.  They’re mostly for younger composers too, more established composers don’t generally go unless they’re there as mentor figures.

Do you perceive national or regional trends or identities or are we all too well connected for that?

Because festivals like Cabrillo and Gaudeamus are curated by the same person every year they definitely have an identity or an aesthetic they’re drawn to.  Something like Darmstadt has a very clear aesthetic that has lasted for decades.  But no real trends emerge from them I think, they’re more gathering places for like minded individuals.  Music festivals, as far as I can tell are not places for innovation in composition but places where composers try to get their name on the map and meet other high profile performers who might play their music.

There are certainly times when a composer’s name starts to appear on a lot of festivals at once, so there is a trend in that regard but not in terms of the music.  Just that a person can get hot and start trending.

Do the scenes differ much?

Mainly in terms of how academic or non academic they are in feel.  Are there workshops and panel presentations and papers read? or is it just about performing and composing music?  Will you see musicians from outside the classical realm there or is it mainly just university trained musicians?