Monday, May 23, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Great music can transport us, even into outer space! The Chicago Sinfonietta takes audiences on a journey through the stars with a presentation of Cosmic Convergence at Symphony Center. The program combines live classical music with video curated by Emmy-nominated astronomer Dr. José Francisco Salgado.
Cosmic Convergence also celebrates 10 years of collaboration between the Sinfonietta and Salgado. “They asked me to collaborate to create a visual backdrop for two concerts of Gustav Holst’s The Planets,” Salgado said. “For a couple of years, I had been experimenting with ways to combine science and arts education, though I had never worked with film at that point.”
The program was so successful that Salgado was inspired to start a non-profit, KV 265, dedicated to exploring science through art in the community. (KV 265 is the work number of a set of variations by Mozart on a tune that we now know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”) “I had the idea to create the Science and Symphony film series that includes video, photographs, and illustrations.” His programs have since been presented in 9 countries around the world to over a quarter-of-a-million people.
“Science can be very intimidating. It can be difficult to grasp. We want to present science in a non-intimidating way.” Video, photography, and illustration “lie at the intersection of science and art,” Salgado said, “because they are beautiful, but also present data.” By matching footage he has captured himself in the field along with other material, he explore complex ideas in accessible ways, all set to music.
The Planets, which began Salgado’s collaboration with the Sinfonietta, is featured in Cosmic Convergence. The orchestral suite has seven movements for seven of the planets in the solar system. Curiously, after Pluto was discovered, Holst resisted adding a Pluto movement to augment the original piece. Little did he know, Pluto would later be identified as a “dwarf planet,” meaning it’s not really a planet because of its size and location. Watch an excerpt of Salgado’s multimedia interpretation of The Planets here.
In addition to presenting celestial classics from the repertoire, Salgado also collaborates with living composers. For Cosmic Convergence, the Sinfonietta performs Borealis, a work John Estacio created in 1997, to which Salgado recently paired visuals. Salgado has also created video to accompany works without astronomical themes. He has combined 90 minutes of time-lapse footage taken from the International Space Station and paired it with the second movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Since the Space Station orbits the earth in 90 minutes, audience members will travel around the world while listening to one of the composer’s most beloved works.
Regardless of his musical inspiration, Salgado aims to ensure that audio and visual experiences enhance each other. “I always try to edit film in service of the music,” he said. “I want people to appreciate both the original music and the visuals. Sometimes I want to explore a certain idea in video, but I have to cut it short so that it matches the music. If I wanted to do that, I would ask people to write new music to match my video, but this is about creating a different kind of experience.”
Friday, May 20, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
When composer Mohammed Fairouz isn’t busy writing symphonies or operas, he’s likely writing about international politics for the Huffington Post, On Being, or Foreign Policy. “I’m engaged in geopolitics and diplomacy on a fairly involved level,” he said in a recent interview. “I’ve been in conversation with people as diverse as Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud,” former head of Saudi Intelligence and Ambassador to the United Kingdom and United States, “and Lana Nusseibeh,” the Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates to the United Nations. “I am very comfortable speaking at the Munich Security Conference.”
Unsurprisingly, Fairouz, who BBC World News called “one of the most talented composers of his generation,” is also comfortable using music to speak about current events. “Art is the ultimate statement that this day and age needs,” he said. “When you make a commitment to art, or architecture, like my friend the late Zaha Hadid, or music, or whatever, you’re actually saying, ‘I am committed to construction. I am committed to creation.’ We’re living in a world where we’re surrounded on a daily basis by destruction. Destruction, destruction, destruction. And there are a lot of people pontificating about the need to build bridges and peace and this and that, and it’s wonderful. Let’s talk about it. When you’re creating art, you’re not just saying it, you’re doing it. You’re taking action.”
In his Symphony No. 4, “In the Shadow of No Towers,” Fairouz took action in response to the 9/11 terrorists attacks by Al-Qaeda on the United States. Though the fall of World Trade Center complex is mentioned in the title of the symphony, Fairouz said, “It’s about the aftermath – how the nation dealt with the trauma, divisiveness, and jingoism that followed. It takes the wound of the 9/11 attacks as its point of inquiry, then moves forward. I wasn’t interested in composing a threnody for the victims. I was interested in doing something a lot less emotionally mawkish. It’s very difficult to take responsibility for mourning the victims for an attack of that scale.”
“In the Shadow of No Towers” also takes inspiration from Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel of the same name. Fairouz said the author and illustrator “was very receptive to the idea. I think it was refreshing for him to revisit his work, and the specific panels [from his graphic novel] that I took as my inspiration.” The first movement is based on a panel divided into three parts called “The New Normal.” The first part illustrates life in the United States before the attacks, the second depicts the attacks themselves, while the third shows life after the attacks. “What’s so stunning is that the first and third are basically unchanged.” The third movement, “One Nation Under Two Flags,” divides the instrumental ensemble into two groups, representing the “United Red Zone of America” and the “United Blue Zone of America.” Spiegelman called the movement a “schizo-scherzo.”
Some of Fairouz’s other symphonies also take current events as their subjects. His Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers,” addresses the Arab-Israeli conflict through the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Fadwa Tuqan, and Mahmoud Darwish. His Symphony No. 5, commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Festival is, “is about the resurface or re-emergence of global prosperity in a new ‘Wild Wild East,’ where massive growth is happening,” he said.
But for Fairouz, opera is perhaps one of the best media to explore complex political issues. “Opera forces you to paint on the largest possible canvas the time,” he said. “The problem with so much contemporary political opera,” he explained, “is that you walk into the theater and you know within two minutes the point of view that the artist has. More often than not, you sort of share that point of view. And ninety minutes later, it’s still going, though you got it within the first two minutes.”
To create a successful political opera, according to Fairouz, a composer must remember two things. First, “if you don’t have a riveting human story, there’s no point in telling it. It’s not the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.” Secondly, he said, the role of an artist should be, “to engender discussion, to move people, and to open up a series of questions,” rather than to “sermonize,” so that audiences are “leaving with political curiosity, or itching to learn more about these characters.”
During the 2016-17 season, the Dutch National Opera will present the world premiere of Fairouz’s opera The New Prince, inspired by Niccolò Machiavelli and his infamous book The Prince. Washington Post columnist and thriller novelist David Ignatius has teamed with Fairouz to create the libretto.
“We thought about it for a long time and we eventually came up with the concept: David thrust Machiavelli from Florence into a futuristic world in 2032 where he is tasked to write advice, on pain of death, for the world’s new dictator. He appears with a sidekick, Henry Kissinger, who of course is being played by Kelsey Grammer. It’s going to be a wild ride.” Other figures from the past and present who appear as characters in the opera include Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Dick Cheney, and bin Laden.
Fairouz is also in the midst of composing another opera, Bhutto, about the life of Benazir Bhutto. “It’s a story about the tectonics and fault lines of modern geopolitics,” he said. “I think it was Madeleine Albright who said, ‘You can’t understand the modern world without understanding Pakistan.’ And she’s right. It’s one of the most misunderstood nations in the modern world. It sits at that fault line of global geopolitics. It’s partially a larger than life story, and on the other hand, it’s a very intimate story about a father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and his daughter.” Hear an excerpt from the opera below.
When Fairouz first approached Pakitani author Mohammed Hanif to create a libretto for the story, he wasn’t met with immediate enthusiasm. “I called him on the telephone in Karachi, and he probably thought, ‘Who is this neurotic New Yorker calling me?’” Fairouz had been a fan of his novels A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and when he explained his idea to write an opera about the Bhuttos, Fairouz said, “I think his initial reaction was, ‘You’re crazy. You want to cover thirty years? You’re talking about a story in which there’s a young girl. Her father becomes the prime minister of the country, is overthrown by a military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, is hanged. The daughter is sent to a dungeon, removed from the country as she’s about to die. She comes back, faces the dictator, whose plane crashes in the Bahawalpur desert, vaporizing him and the chiefs of the army. She rises like a phoenix from the ashes and becomes the first woman to lead a large Muslim nation, one of the first major female prime ministers in the world. She’s completely deposed for her antics and mismanagement in government. Her brother is killed right next door to her as she’s prime minister.’ Then during that conversation we realized opera is perhaps the only medium that can tell this larger than life story,” he continued. “These larger than life figures, the Bhuttos, can only be rendered in this gigantic theatrical setting.”
While composer John Adams used similar language to describe The Death of Klinghoffer in media coverage surrounding the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of it, Fairouz balks at the comparison. “The Bhuttos are an important political family and Zia-ul-Haq was an important figure. They are as public as public figures get. There’s a fundamental difference, I think, when it comes to depicting public figures like them, who are fair game, and taking a private family, where a family member has suffered death at the hands of terrorists. At a certain point, I think the Klinghoffer family was tired that they were being paraded. In a sense you don’t have to acquiesce to anything. We have freedom of speech, you can say anything you want. But I believe in respect, as well. I think at a certain point, if the Klinghoffer family did not want this to happen, I would probably defer to that. They are a private family. The Bhuttos are not. They are a public family and have shaped the modern world.”
With decisive views on a broad range of topics, you can bet Fairouz has strong feelings about the current presidential election cycle in the United States. “I fully endorse publicly and privately Hillary Clinton,” he said. “She represents an establishment that is very important. After the misguided disasters of the George W. Bush administration, Obama overestimated the ability to turn a new page. At the risk of inspiring ire, there are a lot of young people who do not understand that Bernie Sanders, for the longest time, as well intentioned as he is, has been an apostrophe on the American political scene. Someone hoping for the top job in Washington should command the establishment, and if Clinton does, that’s good.
“It’s very clear to me in assessing the current state of affairs that the whole world needs to turn the volume down,” he said. “Americans need to do it. Extremists on the other side need to do it. We’re not headed for a clash of civilizations. Humanity is in a clash for civilization. The civilized voices have to take the mic away from the extremists. Anything intellectually viable and constructive can help turn the volume down. Art, education, and knowledge can do that.”
Monday, July 6, 2015 by Stephen Raskauskas
Sunday, May 17, 2015 by Stephen Raskauskas
That time he wrote two-handed piano music on three staves in stead of just two, ’cause why not?
That time he was like, “Naw, just one staff’s cool, thanks.”
That time he got so hot and bothered he forgot the bar lines.
That time he remembered the bar lines but forgot how to use them. You had ONE job, bar lines!
That time he wanted you to be *very* Turkish.
That time he wanted you to be “dry like a cuckoo.”
That time he wanted you to sound like a “nightingale with a toothache.”
That time things got a little bit bloody…
That time he needed a revolver in the orchestra.
That time he wanted you to play music, but only “in your head.” O…..kaaaaaay?
That time his preludes were so “flabby” he decided to give them to the dogs.
That time he wanted you to “put your hand in your pocket.”
That time he wanted you to play something 840 (!!!) times in a row. Philip Glass? Eat your heart out.
That time he wrote a chocolate and almond waltz. Mmmmm. Choooooocolate.
That time he didn’t write words for the singer. Words are for the birds…
That time he wanted you tap into your psychic powers? What?!?!?
That time he needed an extra “ñ” in “España” to parody Bizet’s Carmen.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016 by Michael San Gabino
The name Fryderyk Chopin is synonymous with Polish music and culture. Though Stanisław Moniuszko may not be a household name today, the composer is literally the face of Polish opera. A statue of him rests outside of the Warsaw Opera House, where he served as director and premiered several of his works.
But who was Moniuszko? Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) was born in Ubiel, now in Belarus. In 1828, his family moved to Warsaw, where he heard Polish folk music for the first time. He travelled around Europe during his adult life, meeting with and learning from the greatest opera composers of the day. Glinka, Liszt, Mussorgsky, and Rossini all recognized his talent. He spent the latter part of his life in Warsaw when he was appointed the director of the Warsaw Opera House in 1858.
His most well-known operas, Halka and Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor), are famous for their nationalistic elements, both musically and thematically. Like Chopin’s music, many of Moniuszko’s melodies are inspired by Polish dance music, such as the mazurka and polonaise. Moniuszko’s operas also depict the strength of the Polish people and military.
Listen to an example of a mazurka from The Haunted Manor below.
While the nationalism in The Haunted Manor united Poles, it upset others. In 1865, the year of the opera’s premiere, Russia controlled Poland. Eventually, Russian authorities banned the opera all together. Since Poland’s sovereignty and culture was suppressed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Moniuszko’s operas are praised by the Polish public today.
To honor Moniuszko’s legacy, the International Stanisław Moniuszko Vocal Competition was founded in 1992 and takes place every 3 years. This year’s competition attracted 329 entries from 22 countries. A selection panel chose 89 singers to compete in the first stage. Over the course of 4 days, a jury consisting of world renowned opera singers and casting directors eventually selected 16 singers to appear in the third and final stage of the competition. Each finalist had the opportunity to sing with the Polish National Opera Orchestra on the stage of the Teatr Wielki—Opera Narodowa (Grand Theatre—National Opera).
During the first and third stages of the competition, contestants were required to select a Polish-language work. This requirement created challenges for both native Polish and non-Polish musicians alike.
Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński received Second Prize in the male category. A native of Warsaw, Orliński currently studies at The Juilliard School and was recently named a Finalist at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Luckily for Orliński, who had difficulty finding Polish countertenor repertoire, the competition allowed for contestants to transpose Polish-language works.
“For the first round, my pianist, Michał Biel, actually forced me to sing ‘U jeziorecka’ by Szymanowski,” Orliński said. “We transposed it, and it sounds great for a countertenor. This music is just beautiful and it makes a really nice impression. We’ve also been performing it in New York, and everyone loves it! So we decided to use it for this competition.” He confessed, “It’s difficult to sing in my hometown because there a lot of expectations, and it’s pretty stressful. I was so happy to advance and to sing on the stage of the Teatr Wielki for the first time.”
For soprano and finalist Jacqueline Piccolino, a Chicago native who appeared on WFMT’s Introductions at age 18, familiarizing herself with the Polish language was a major focus of her competition preparation. “I am actually 25% Polish, but it took me about a month and a half to work on the language with a teacher at the University of Illinois, where I studied,” Piccolino noted after her performance in the final stage. “We talked about Polish customs and culture, and we went through the texts. It began to feel natural for me.”
She also enjoyed singing at the Warsaw Opera House because “it is a totally different thing than the American houses. It’s a smaller, intimate space. The audience is so enthusiastic about Polish music and music in general, and it’s fun to sing for them.” Piccolino sang the recitative and aria “Paria! On Paria!” from Moniuszko’s opera Paria in her final performance. “I’ve sang Chopin songs before,” she commented. “What I found after singing Chopin and Moniuszko is that both are brilliant composers, but Moniuszko has more of a dramatic flair. You can tell there is a very Slavic feel in his music, and he’s just excellent.”
Moniuszko’s works are not the only lesser known repertoire performed at the competition. In a press conference the day before the final stage, members of the jury stated that since the competition already requires Polish works, contestants tend to branch out from the standard repertoire. Since the competition was also streamed online, countless people around the world were exposed to these diverse vocal works as well as tomorrow’s up-and-coming opera stars.
Moniuszko might not be a recognizable name yet, but his legacy is reaching beyond Poland now more than ever.
Michael San Gabino’s travel to Warsaw, Poland was sponsored by the Study Visits Department at the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.
For more information about the International Stanisław Moniuszko Vocal Competition and a complete list of winners, visit their website.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016 by Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Another renowned musician has canceled a North Carolina performance in protest of the state’s new law limiting antidiscrimination policies for LGBT people.
In a Facebook post Tuesday, Violinist Itzhak Perlman canceled his May 18 performance in Raleigh.
Perlman was scheduled to perform with the North Carolina Symphony at the Meymandi Concert Hall.
In the post, Perlman says he has spent a lifetime opposing discrimination toward those with physical disabilities and describes himself as a vocal advocate of treating all people equally.
The post says Perlman will return to North Carolina only after the law is repealed.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Monday, May 16, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Though Kurt Elling is one of the most well-loved and highly praised jazz singers of our time, he first developed his chops singing Bach motets. As Elling returned to his native Chicago for performances at City Winery, he spoke about how classical music has influenced him throughout his life.
Though Elling confessed, “I never thought of a professional career in music,” becoming a musician was perhaps inevitable. His father was the music director of a Lutheran church in the Chicago suburbs, and music was always a part of his childhood. He began singing in his church choir, “starting with soprano, then alto, then tenor, and finally all the way to the bass. I was so happy to finally sing bass because that’s where the root is, that’s where the power is,” he said. He also sang with the Rockford Choral Union, and later, as a student at Gustavus Adolphus College, with the Gustavus Choir.
From singing in several choral groups, Elling was exposed to a broad range of repertoire including “12th century plainsong, crazy Norwegian composers, Duruflé, and Mozart, of course.” But as the son of a Lutheran music director, naturally, one of his favorite composers is the great Lutheran music director J.S. Bach. Elling has a particular fondness for Bach’s motets.
Some of his other favorite classical works include Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, which he said he would often turn to “when things were at their most bleak, as things often are in high school, because it has a certain kind of nobility and even ‘possibility, for lack of a better term.”
Elling also has a “fondness for Grieg, especially his small piano works which are like gorgeous, pristine little Fabergé eggs. I fall in love with his music in the same way that one falls in love with Dvořák, with his beautiful melodies developed from folksongs.”
One of Elling’s favorite modern composers is the recently deceased Knut Nystedt. “His music reminds me of Bach a lot because of its complex counterpoint. In Bach, a quarter note might be 120 beats per minute on the metronome, but in Knut a quarter is something absurdly long like a minute. The music stretches out over an enormous length of time, so you get a sense that you’re listening to all of these pieces of a giant machine fitting together.”
Elling says that singing classical music can help any singer “develop your technique because it insists that you sing in tune and requires a lot of agility. The basic mechanisms of good singing are always going to be in play: good breath support, being able to move from very forceful and loud passages to very subdued and restrained and quiet passages, the ability to maneuver with dexterity among challenging intervals. Beyond pure technique, singing classical music teaches you about the structure of music, too. I learn so much about the structure of a piece by singing it.”
Singers who have influenced Elling range from Pavarotti to Prince. Among his favorite living opera singers is Renée Fleming. He said, “We’ve gotten to know each other recently, she has been very gracious in bringing me into her world and I have brought her a bit into mine. And of course I just love her voice.” Elling mentioned Bryn Terfel , James Taylor, and Sting as other singers he admires.
Though he appreciates his background singing classical music, Elling said, “I didn’t think my voice was built to be a classical singer. I didn’t have the kind of dedication, and I was equally interested in creating new material or arranging new things.” His first forays singing jazz were when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
“Recordings turned me on first, and then I started going to hear lots of live music. I fell in love with the musicians on the jazz scene in Chicago, and soon the jazz guys started saying, ‘Hey man, you’re with us, you should come back and sing with us.’ So I did.” For a while, Elling said he was “trying to read Heidegger by day and going to clubs at night.” Soon, he “started spending more time awake in clubs at night than I was during the day,” and he eventually withdrew from his degree program. The rest, as they say, is history.
Though today jazz is Elling’s bread and butter, classical music has remained an important part of his life. “There’s nothing that compares to the emotional thrill and uplift that one receives from the greatest possible music. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is. But there are few more powerful experiences or feelings of being fully alive, focused, and engaged than when I have been making music with a choir and orchestra.”
Friday, May 13, 2016 by WFMT
All month long, WFMT is featuring hidden gems by composers you love and some who may be less familiar each day at 9:00 AM central. Enjoy these five hidden gems below, and tune in each day in May at 9:00 AM central at 98.7 FM or anywhere in the world from wfmt.com or our apps or Apple and Android.
- Alkan’s Symphonie, Op 39
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was a contemporary of Chopin and Liszt, and his prowess at the keyboard was no less great than theirs. Though was quite reclusive, he was loved among some of the great cultural figures of his time, some of whom he met at Parisian salons. His works fell largely into obscurity after his death, which some apocryphal accounts say was caused by a bookcase that fell on him in his apartment. One of his great masterpieces is his Symphonie for solo piano.
- Zelenka’s Miserere in C “Il fondamento”
Jan Dismas Zelenka (1697-1745), a Czech contemporary of Bach, was one of the most widely-regarded composers in Saxony, where he spent much of his professional life. Dresden, Saxony’s capitol, was an international melting pot because it is geographically located in the center of Europe. Composers at the Dresden court enjoyed a rich bounty of musical resources including players from around the continent. In Zelenka’s Miserere, you can hear the “mixed style” that was so loved and admired in international Saxony.
- Reubke’s Piano Sonata in b-flat
In the middle of the 18th century with the Seven Years War, Saxony fell to Prussia. Dresden, however, remained an important musical center for some time to come. Julius Reubke (1834 – 1858) had the opportunity to study with Liszt in Berlin before he eventually settled in Dresden at the end of his career. His Piano Sonata in b-flat major is one piece that shows the influence of his mentor Liszt, who wrote a similar work with his Piano Sonata in b minor.
- Reger: Serenade in G, Op 141A
Max Reger (1873 – 1916) and J.S. Bach shared the same adopted city of Leipzig, where each of them held major positions. Reger was the music director of the Leipzig University Church and a professor at the Royal Conservatory in Leipzig. In his spare time, Reger he was also the court composer to the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen(!). The breadth of his work, not surprisingly, is astonishing. He worked in every genre from instrumental fugues to theatre music.
- Taneyev: Piano Quintet, Op 30
Sergei Taneyev (1856 – 1915) was in the same composition class as Tchaikovsky. Though both composers were highly active in their day, Taneyev’s reputation did not enjoy the same fate as his classmate’s. They were, however, lifelong friends. In fact, Taneyev was one of the few people who Tchaikovsky trusted to offer honest advice regarding his work. His honesty with other musicians, though, made his relationships with other contemporary composers more complicated.
Thursday, May 12, 2016 by Michael San Gabino
Many musicians have started their careers in Chicago, and some of them have also studied at the Academy of the Music Institute of Chicago. Founded in 2006, the Academy was established to serve as a training center for gifted pre-college classical musicians. The program is designed for piano and strings.
“The Academy was modeled after another program, the oldest of its kind in the country: the Juilliard Pre-College Division,” explained James Setapen, who has served as Director of the Academy since 2009. Both curriculums offer private lessons, chamber music groups, and numerous performance opportunities.
Over the past 10 years, the Academy has developed an illustrious reputation in the music world. Students regularly win local, national, and even international competitions. Likewise, many Academy students go on to study at the country’s most prestigious music schools, such as Juilliard, Curtis, and Colburn.
Many Academy musicians have appeared on WFMT’s Introductions. We celebrated the Academy’s 10th anniversary by featuring some wonderful performances from past programs. Hear the full program below.
After you enjoy the broadcast above, learn more information about five Academy and Introductions alumni who are making their mark in music.
- Matthew Lipman, viola
Matt Lipman appeared on Introductions when he was 16 years old. He is now a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Matt will be featured on a concert with violinist Rachel Barton Pine on Saturday, May 14 at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston to celebrate the Academy’s 10th anniversary.
- Kate Liu, pianoKate Liu appeared on Introductions when she was 14 years old. Since, she won Third Prize and Best Performance of Mazurkas at the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in 2015.
- Gabriel Cabezas, cello
Gabriel Cabezas appeared on Introductions when he was 15 years old. He has since graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music and was a soloist at the Grant Park Music Festival last year.
- Vincent Meklis, violin
Vince Meklis appeared on Introductions when he was 16 years old. He graduated from the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California and currently studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg, Germany.
- Aurelia String QuartetThe Aurelia String Quartet appeared on Introductions after winning the Gold Medal at the 2009 Fischoff Competition, one of the most prestigious youth music competitions in the country. Their members included violinists Laura Park and Susie Koh, violist Arianna Smith, and cellist Allan Steele.
To learn more about the Academy of the Music Institute of Chicago, visit their website.
Wednesday, May 11, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, who created more than 100 ballets in his 60-year career, is one of the most influential figures in the history of dance. His contributions have been recognized with numerous awards, honorary doctorates from institutions like Oxford University, and even knighthood.
Ashton has had a special connection to Chicago through the Joffrey Ballet, one of the first American companies to present his work. Robert Joffrey, who co-founded the company with Gerald Arpino, was a “great friend of Ashton,” accordingly to Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s current artistic director. “Ashton always loved the way Joffrey danced his work. It’s poetic that since they were so close that they died the same year.”
Wheater had the opportunity to work with Ashton himself. “I was a very young boy at the Royal Ballet School when I met Ashton,” Wheater said. “Benjamin Britten was asked to stage his last opera, Death in Venice, with the English Opera Group and Ashton was brought in to do all the children’s scenes.” Dance plays an important part in the opera, and Wheater was cast as one of the Polish boys in the 1973 staging at the Royal Opera House in London. (The opera premiered earlier that year in Suffolk.) “Being cast in the opera was a really big deal and a wonderful opportunity. But then to realize that we’d be working with him for many months was incredible.”
Wheater worked with Ashton on other ballets, performing and rehearsing Monotones II, The Dream, Jazz Calendar, and other works. As the Joffrey prepares to mount Ashton’s Cinderella, Wheater reflected on his time with the legendary choreographer and shared fun facts to corroborate information about his life and work.
- Ashton established a distinctly English style of ballet.
Ashton quite literally founded the school of English ballet. In 1938, he became principal choreographer of the Vic-Wells Ballet, which later became the Royal Ballet under the leadership of Dame Ninette de Valois. Ashton is also known, perhaps above all else, as founding a uniquely English style of dance. But what exactly is “English” about it?
Wheater explained: “There’s a kind of squareness to the lines due to the position of the shoulders over the hips and the placement of the arms. Ashton drew lines in a very architectural way, and there wasn’t a lot of loose freedom in the upper body; it had a lot of shape. Some people would describe the style as reserved, but in fact Ashton’s squareness gives a crystalline shape to the body. I always explain to my dancers that looking at his lines is like looking at etchings in glass, and we need to achieve that look. One small slip, and the clarity is gone. It’s easy for your eye to become accustomed to this clear look, and it’s obvious when it’s not there.”
- He grew up in South America.
Though Ashton is considered quintessentially English, he was actually born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where his father served as British vice-consul. The Ashtons moved briefly to Lima, Peru, but returned to Ecuador in 1914. Frederick did not go to England until he was in his teens; his father sent him to Dover College in 1919. Ashton spoke Spanish and English fluently.
- Anna Pavlova inspired him to become a dancer.
Ashton knew he wanted to be a dancer when he saw Anna Pavlova perform in 1917. Audiences around the world got to know Pavlova particularly through her work as a principal dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Later, Ashton would go on to study with Léonide Massine, a member of Diahilev’s troupe who later formed his own Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo members of the original company. Ashton’s dreams of becoming a dancer came full circle in 1939 when he was asked to create a new work, The Devil’s Holiday (Le Diable s’amuse), for Massine’s company.
- Ashton’s épaulement was everything.
Ashton had a recognizable style both as a dancer and a choreographer, especially because of his elegant épaulement, or placement of the shoulders. Wheater says that Ashton also had a singular port de bras, or arm movement, which was “lyrical all the way out to the fingers. He saw the body very much in a three dimensional form. Sometimes the way we use our arms, things can look quite flat. But Ashton was able to achieve a kind of articulation through his upper body that extended through his elbows, wrists, and hands” that was instantly recognizable.
- He has his own signature “Fred step” (which actually wasn’t his own).
Ashton adored Pavlova so much that he frequently incorporated a short sequence of steps of hers into his own work. What is now known as the “Fred step” is composed in technical terms of an arabesque, développé, pas de bourrée dessous, and a pas de chat.Wheater described the step in lay person’s terms: “It’s a little bit like a seesaw, you transfer your weight, and you catch both of your feet underneath you and land on both of them. You really use the weight of the upper body, and since the head is the heaviest part, you want to put it above the supporting leg each time.”For visual learners, the video above explains the step even better.
- Ashton was gay.
“All of us knew that he was gay,” Wheater said. “But I didn’t have an awareness of his sexuality when I was working with him when I was very young. In fact, growing up in England, maybe because I wanted to be a ballet dancer, I didn’t even think about the fact that I was gay. We are lucky in the arts because people can be who they want to be.”
Ashton’s sexuality was no secret, and he was not shy about expressing his feelings for men, as a letter to a male dancer, Richard Beard, reveals. He wrote to Dick describing his new work, Scènes de ballet, saying:
“Would you kiss me tenderly and say “you did well today”…. The choreography is very classical naturally my own particular extension of the classic vocabulary with moments I think of poetry & real beauty & very much on a grand scale & a certain mystery & elegance & an aristocratic air to it all… All of it, my darling, for what it is worth, I dedicate to you with my love.”
- He had no qualms about cross-dressing.
Ashton was not shy about playing travesty roles. One of his most famous drag characters was as one of the wicked stepsisters in Prokofiev’s Cinderella, which was also the first full-length ballet Ashton created. It premiered when England was still recovering from World War II, and is full of laughs, perhaps to help warm the hearts of blitz-weary audiences. The stepsisters have become some of the most memorable characters in the ballet, and one early critic described the whole work as “slapstick of celestial order.”
- Margot Fonteyn called him a “madman.”
Ashton worked extensively with Margot Fonteyn, whom Queen Elizabeth II herself appointed as the Royal Ballet’s Prima Ballerina Assoluta. In a BBC Radio interview, Fonteyn revealed that she first thought Ashton was a “madman” whose choreography was “impossible.” Wheater said he wasn’t quite so sure about that, though he commented: “In a stage call during Death in Venice he was so angry at me for talking on stage. The thing is: I wasn’t talking on stage. So I said, ‘Sir Fred, it wasn’t me talking,’ and he said, ‘Don’t be so insolent and don’t talk back.’ But I insisted I wasn’t talking because I wasn’t. Still, I never saw the dark side of him.”Marie Rambert, one of Ashton’s teachers, described him as “passionately lazy.” Wheater said, “I don’t think that applies.” In fact, Wheater remembers Ashton as an indefatigable choreographer who knew how to achieve results with his dancers, no matter how many times they had to repeat steps in rehearsal.
- He was a smoker.
“He used to smoke a lot,” Wheater said. “He always had a cigarette in the studio. His fingers were always yellow with nicotine. Because he wants your upper body to bend a lot, right through your upper body and through the head, he would sometimes correct us as dancers. He would come up to you with his burnt out fingers to shape your head the way he wanted, and I was always worried he would burn my head.”
- He was no stranger to the silver screen.
One of Ashton’s most beloved ballets was created for film in 1971: The Tales of Beatrix Potter, inspired by the works of that influential children’s author and illustrator. “When you’re a child, or even an adult, and you grow up with these characters, to see them come to life is just charming,” Wheater said. “I remember going to the premiere of that film and I knew a lot of the dancers in it. Sir Fred played Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle,” showing his penchant for travesty roles. “I can’t think of a better choreographer to tell the story of Beatrix Potter. The film was so successful that it was adapted for the stage when it was a ballet. It would be such a lovely thing to do at the Joffrey!”
Monday, May 9, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
At 79 years old, Philip Glass has composed 27 operas. Yet, only a handful have been performed in Chicago, though the composer spent formative years in the Windy City as a student.
Still, Chicago has been home to a couple of important Glass premieres. In 2002, the Goodman Theatre presented the world-premiere of Galileo Galilei, which the theater also commissioned. Two years earlier, his In the Penal Colony had its Chicago premiere at the Court Theatre in a production directed by his then wife, JoAnne Akalaitis. Court’s production originated at ACT Theater, Seattle, which commissioned the work and presented the world premiere.
This May, In the Penal Colony returns to Chicago for select performances in a presentation by Chicago Fringe Opera, dedicated to performing English-language operas by modern and contemporary composers in site specific productions.
The opera, based upon the short story by Franz Kafka of the same name, explores the morality of capital punishment. (For the full text of the story, click here.) An unnamed visitor finds himself on an island penal colony. He meets an unnamed officer who executes prisoners using an infernal machine called “the Harrow,” which tattoos the crimes of prisoners on their body for twelve hours, ultimately killing them.
Chicago Fringe Opera stages this unusual opera in an unusual setting, the Lillstreet Arts Center. Stage director George Cederquist said, “It’s a working art studio. As part of our production, we refer to blueprints of the Harrow that the Officer stores from racks which are permanently installed there. The floor is covered with materials suggesting ink or other stains from the machine. The space gives the production a feel that’s raw and gritty without making things uncomfortable for our audiences.”
Even grittier than the space, however, is the score. “There’s no one who can invite you into his world like Philip Glass,” conductor Catherine O’Shaughnessy said. Scored for two singers and string quintet, In the Penal Colony marks the first Chicago Fringe Opera production to realize a composer’s full score. Previous Fringe productions have featured singers with a piano reduction.
Glass’s music presents challenges regardless of the size of the ensemble required to perform. “Normally when you’re working with an orchestra or ensemble, the phrases are clear on the page,” O’Shaughnessy said. “With this piece, you have to read between the lines a bit more. If you’re just looking at the violin part, you see pages and pages of just quarter notes. You can’t tell what the phrase is, or what’s happening dramatically, or even what the harmony is. One day I woke up and his lines started to sound like Puccini to me. I felt the dramatic flow. It all started making sense.”
Though O’Shaughnessy and members of the quintet have the advantage of looking at scores during Glass’s entire 80 minute opera, the singers do not. “I am so glad I’m not a singer trying to learn a Glass opera,” Cederquist said. “If you get off the beat, you are so screwed.” To help the singers remember their music, he explained, “I tried to find clear guide posts in the staging that align with specific points in the music to help them where I can.”
Singers are also faced with the challenge of being up close and personal with their audience. By presenting the opera in the intimate space of the Lillstreet Art Center, they are literally inches from listeners at all times. Not even HD broadcasts can bring you that close to the action.
After a weekend of preview performances, Chicago Fringe Opera opens In the Penal Colony on May 13, 2016, for a run of six performances. For more information, visit Chicago Fringe Opera’s website.
Monday, May 9, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Tenor Nick Allen gave a chilling performance recently. Chilling chiefly because he sang in Antarctica, where the average summer temperature is usually below freezing.
Allen’s audience was a waddle of penguins, waddle being the adorable name for any group of penguins on land. In water, a group is a raft. Luckily for us, Allen uploaded a video of his Antarctic debut to his YouTube channel.
Judging by their reaction, Antarctic penguins may not be the new opera audience that companies are desperately trying to reach to improve numbers at the box office and ensure the future of the art form.
Antarctica is home to 6 species of penguins. Perhaps Allen will find fans among the other five?