Saturday, October 1, 2016 by Maggie Reberg
Hi, Maggie Reberg, here! You may know me as an occasional voice on WFMT’s airwaves, but you may also have seen me performing at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chamber Opera Chicago, Light Opera Works and more! I am so excited to be a part of Lyric’s historic season opener, a new production of Das Rheingold. I thought you might enjoy some behind the scenes footage from the orchestra dress rehearsal which took place Wednesday, September 28, 2016.
Here I am about to enter the house through the stage door.
Here’s an interesting view, not only behind the scenes, but below!
I have the best seat in the house from up here!
A Norn’s work is never done!
He’s SAYS he’s not the most important guy, but what would we do without our beloved Stage Manager?!
Acting as body doubles for the Rheinmaidens this summer was like a day at Six Flags!
The wigs, makeup, and wardrobe departments are some of the hardest working people at LOC, and they make us look grand!
Friday, September 30, 2016 by Michael San Gabino
While most people are familiar with the revised 1889 version of Brahms’ Piano Trio in B Major, violinist Joshua Bell’s new album, For the Love of Brahms, presents the original, 1854 version. The recording, which you can sample below, also features cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Jeremy Denk
The trio was written when a 20 year old Brahms fell in love with his friend’s, Robert Schumann’s, wife: Clara Schumann. In a recent interview, Bell explained why he was shocked by Brahms’ original version of the Piano Trio in B Major and how the piece relates to the Double Concerto in a minor, which is also featured on the album.
How did your collaborations begin with Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk?
I met Steven Isserlis over 30 years ago at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina. We were just thrown together in some chamber groups, which is what happens at these festivals. Sometimes, you just hit it off musically and personally. We argued plenty, and we still do! He’s a very serious musician, and he knows what he wants. But I’ve learned so much from him, from arguing. I’ve learned about music and the way it should go.
With the Brahms Double Concerto, Steven was the first person I ever played it with. It took about 30 years before I felt that I get this piece and know it well enough to put on a disc. I finally had the right collaboration with the orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and Steven. All the stars aligned.
Jeremy Denk is my other chamber music partner who I play with the most after Steven. He’s a great musician and an intellect, and I love playing with him. We’re not a trio that performs regularly on the circuit, but we thought it’d be a great idea for all of us to collaborate.
How did you become acquainted with the original version of the Piano Trio in B Major?
It was Steven Isserlis who said we should really take a look at the original version of the Piano Trio in B Major. Brahms composed it when he was just 20 years old. During this time, he met Robert and Clara Schumann, thanks to his friend Joseph Joachim. I was shocked, because it’s so raw. It’s a little less perfect and refined than the later version. It’s quite a bit longer, too. There are themes that were left on the cutting room floor when he revised it later in life. Perhaps because he felt it was very heart-on-sleeve and almost embarrassing, looking back at his 20 year old self with this emotion for Clara Schumann. I think it’s beautiful, and I’ve fallen in love with it. Brahms allowed for both versions to exist and never destroyed the original version – he probably had a fondness for it as well.
How does the 1854 Piano Trio relate to the Double Concerto in this album?
In Brahms’ life and in our recording, the pieces really are bookends. The Double Concerto is the last piece he wrote for orchestra, and the Op. 8 Trio he wrote when he was very young. Brahms, as we know, fell head over heels for Clara Schumann. It’s with this affection in heart when he wrote the Piano Trio at a young age. He wrote the Double Concerto for Joachim later in life as a sort of reconciliation gift because they had a falling out.
What does Brahms mean to you as a musician?
It’s hard to put into words – it’s like saying, “What does your mother mean to you?” [Laughs] I think Brahms is the epitome of integrity and seriousness in music, and depth and subtlety of feeling. His Violin Concerto, along with Beethoven’s, is one of the pillars of the repertoire. I started playing his chamber music when I was very young. He’s the kind of composer that you appreciate more and more when you get older.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Maestro Riccardo Muti typically doesn’t pass through a metal detector or get a pat-down before conducting a concert. But the intimate recital he presented with Joyce DiDonato, Eric Owens, and musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, September 25, 2016 was different.
The concert took place at the Illinois Youth Center-Chicago (IYC-Chicago), one of five facilities that are part of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. Muti has made eight visits to Chicago-area correctional facilities in an effort to bring music into the community. This was his second time at IYC-Chicago.
The performance was hosted in a space that also doubles as a basketball court, with paintings of famous basketball players on the walls, including Michael Jordan stylized as the “Jumpman” logo for his Air Jordan line of footwear. Dozens of young men filed into rows of blue plastic chairs, all wearing the same blue pants, blue shirts, and white sneakers fastened with Velcro straps.
A staff member encouraged each of the young men to “push your grown man button,” and to be open to the experience they were about to have, understanding that the music they would hear would likely be different than the music they were used to, and may even be music that they did not like. All the same, he assured them, the concert would provide them with an experience that would change them.
Before Muti began, two young women from the Illinois Youth Center – Warrenville performed an original song, “Edge of Oblivion,” as a duet. It was written with Storycatchers Theatre, which as part of its mission to empower youth through writing, works with students in the Chicago area centers to create original works that explore their own journeys through song.
Afterwards, Muti addressed the young men and acknowledged, “already the word ‘classical’ makes you worried.” He told them that when he was young, he was encouraged to study music by his parents, despite his initial disinterest. In fact, at one point, his parents considered cancelling his music lessons to save money on the expense. However, soon his skills improved, and the rest, as they say, is history.
He invited DiDonato and Owens to perform. First, the mezzo sang “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo, explaining that the character in the opera sings to express her sadness while she is imprisoned. The second aria she performed was “Si, son io,” from Jake Heggie’s recently composed Great Scott. Owens performed “Infelice! E tuo credevi” from Ernani and Harry Thacker Burleigh’s Deep River. Afterwards, members of the orchestra performed a selection of solo and chamber works.
When the performance concluded, several of the young men offered their reactions. One young man who played drums when he was younger particularly enjoyed Cynthia Yeh’s percussion solo, Saidi Swing by Shane Shanahan. Another young man, who played tuba in elementary school but said he was never very good, enjoyed hearing tuba player Gene Pokorny play Arthur Pryor’s Blue Bells of Scotland. He had the opportunity to visit Symphony Center to hear the CSO in its own house, where he said it was “definitely different” but that it was “impressive.” A third young man, who said he doesn’t play an instrument other than during the video game Rock Band, was particularly taken with the high sound of the piccolo, played by Jennifer Gunn. Her instrument was featured in arrangements from J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto and a Vivaldi piccolo concerto.
DiDonato said she observed that the mood in the room seemed to change throughout the afternoon from “restless and uncertain to tranquil and full of curiosity.” Because “music belongs to everybody,” she said, “it can be an amazing, poignant way to make connections.”
Owens said, “I always carry experiences like this with me. There’s nothing like music to spread love. Music can fill us with hope and vision. I am always happy to be a part of maestro Muti’s mission to bring music to where the people are.”
To learn more about the CSO and its work in the community, visit the organization’s website.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016 by Daniel Goldberg
Tuesday, September 27, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
If you have ever heard Peking opera, you might think that one of the only things this style of singing has in common with Western opera singing is that they both contain the word “opera.”
But Fu Xiru, an artist with Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company, and Shan Yue Jin, the company’s artistic director, revealed that Peking opera artists today learn a lot from techniques used by Western opera singers. The company brings its production of The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, in which Fu plays the title role, to Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance for two performances on September 28 & 29, 2016.
China has developed many interdisciplinary art forms that all fall under the umbrella of “Chinese opera.” Peking opera, which formed during the 19th century, combines music, drama, dance, and acrobatics to create a single, unforgettable spectacle.
Fu began his training, like most Peking opera artists, at a very young age. “I was introduced to Peking opera by my father, who is a Peking opera musician, at the age of 6,” he said. “I started learning how to play the instruments. Later, I got into performing myself and I just fell in love with the art form.” At the ripe age of 15, Fu made his professional debut. To date, he has practiced his art for 30 years.
“To be a good performer,” he said, “you also have to have talent and really love what you do because of all the training that is involved.” And, while lots of training is to be expected for any professional performer, the types of training Fu and his colleagues have received are particularly diverse.
“Peking opera requires artists to have many different skills,” he explained. “There are four main categories: singing, speech, movement, and action.” The broad category of “movement” includes everything from hand, feet, eye, and other body movements, while “action” includes martial arts.
Shan added, “As an art form, Peking opera is very similar to what you would have seen centuries ago in Shakespeare’s theater. The performers carry the plot – you don’t need a lot of stage set up. A lot of the skills and techniques are actually drawn from ancient Chinese poems. A poem may describe two people who meet and who exchange a single glance. That moment is exaggerated on stage and becomes a part of the performance in a very poetic way.”
But one thing a poem can’t teach you, per se, is how to sing.
“Traditionally, students learn to sing orally from former performers,” Fu said. “There wasn’t a system or theory for teaching and producing sound. However, western opera singing has a whole set of theories and techniques that we have found very helpful.”
“In Western opera, singers often strive for a certain kind of ‘perfect’ sound. They train to develop a certain technique that allows for efficient vibration in the head and chest, and things of that nature.”
“Peking opera performers also strive for certain sounds,” Fu explained, “however we’re also looking for individualized singing styles. Sometimes a performer has developed a special sound that is very characteristic that is just for themselves.”
This individualistic approach to vocal production allows for a great deal of timbral variety. “A performer may choose only to use head vibration, while another may use almost only chest and very little head voice. There’s also another kind of singing technique called ‘the cloud covers the moon.’ Moonlight is very clear and bright. For performers who sing with this technique, their voice is not clear, it’s somewhat rough.”
These days, Peking opera artists also incorporate Western singing techniques into their bevy of skills.
“These include breathing techniques,” he said, “in particular supporting the breath from the belly. Though we also use a technique we call ‘dog breathing.’” He demonstrated by taking several quick, shallow breaths, panting like a puppy.
“Western techniques help us control our breath and project our voice better and bigger on stage. The theater company actually has music and singing teachers on staff to help performers perfect breathing and singing. We also invite vocal instructors from outside the company to teach.”
Shan explained, “Training today is quite different from traditional training over 100 year ago.” This is, in part, because, “we use these techniques in our opera training so that our students have more comprehensive ways to train themselves. In the old days, certain talents may have limited performers, but now there are ways we can improve those talents.”
Besides the adoption of other singing techniques, the company’s training processes have evolved in other ways. Shan said that because Peking opera has “a lot of physical movement, performers have to be physically fit. We use a lot of technical analysis of students, including with new technology, to study movement and find the best ways for them to perform. This helps them move more efficiently and reduce the risk of injury.”
But what happens to performers who, like Fu, start training at 6, but who, unlike Fu, may not posses the skills or desire to have a professional career?
Shan said, “In China today, a lot of the young performers go to performing arts schools which teach a comprehensive curriculum including math, science, and engineering – many different subjects. This helps prepare them for other opportunities in the job market.”
When Peking opera first began in the late 19th century, however, this would not have been the case. Today, even in many Western conservatories, students receive some semblance of a liberal arts education. Often, though, training is so heavily focused on performance, that graduates find transitioning into other careers to be quite the challenge.
Luckily for Fu – and for audiences around the world who have enjoyed his artistry – Peking opera is and likely always will be his “day job.”
To learn more about Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company, visit the company’s website.
This interview with Fu Xiru and Shan Yue Jin was kindly translated by Z. J. Tong, President of the Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute.
Monday, September 26, 2016 by David Polk
John von Rhein, the classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune since 1977, previews performing arts events come to the Windy City this fall in a conversation with WFMT program director David Polk. Von Rhein weighs in on performances at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ear Taxi Festival, Chicago Opera Theater, and more. Listen to their conversation or read a transcript below, and tell us what events you’re eagerly anticipating in the Chicago area this fall. Their conversation will be broadcast Monday, September 26, 2016 at 10:00 pm.
DP: There is so much classical music happening in Chicago this fall at not only the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera but at the many smaller organizations that perform in our area. Add to that the festivals, including the largest new music festival to ever happen in Chicago, and it can be hard to choose what to attend. To help, I’ve invited John Von Rhein back to our studio to provide his recommendations for what not to mess next year. Von Rhein will be celebrating his 40th year as the classical music critic at The Chicago Tribune.
JvR: It all blends together, David. It’s really one big season. There used to be a clear break, but no longer.
DP: Why don’t we start with Lyric Opera of Chicago. You were very enthusiastic about Lyric the last time we spoke, when we did a review of the last part of the previous season which will which is still on our website. You’ve you’ve written about two major or lyric productions coming up and that is Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” which is part of the “Ring Cycle,” and “Les Troyens.” What makes these two productions so important and monumental?
JvR: Well first of all any production of “The Ring” anywhere in the world is important and attracts attention all over the world among Wagner lovers and opera lovers in general. This is the first “Ring” at Lyric in well over a decade. The previous one they revived twice. Last time, I think, it was 2005 the Everding “Ring.” This will be a completely new one.
Part of it, is to show off a new generation of Wagner singers as well as some European singers who General Director Anthony Freud has identified in Europe and who music director Andrew Davis wants to bring here. It also marks the return of the British director David Pountney who has never done a complete “Ring Cycle” before. He started one at English National Opera several years ago that never took off. So we’re getting a “Rheingold” really that has a lot of new elements to Chicago. It’s going to be almost radical, I might say, in a certain respect. I mean given the tech-driven, and ideological “Rings” all over the world – I think of the machine “Ring” at the Met, and the kind of crazy Eurotrash productions in Europe (we won’t mention any direct houses).
DP: But when you mention this ‘machine’ “Ring,” and what you’re referring to is this hugely expensive production. It was literally a machine the set was moving, and you may have seen it when it was broadcast on Great Performances.
JvR: Director Roberto Lapage was given a huge budget to work with and he seemed to put it all into the machinery rather than telling the story, which is paramount. David Pountney, in his “Ring” starting with “Rheingold” in October here at the Lyric, feels, and I tend to agree with him, that the “Ring of the Nibelungs,” being a saga, calls for a storytelling approach. I mean that’s what a saga is all about.
I’ve gone to the tech rehearsals, so I have a bit of an idea of what’s going on. It’ll start with a bare stage. As the E-flat chord rolls over the orchestra at the beginning of “Rheingold,” you’ll see a bare stage that will gradually take shape as singers and actors bring in parts of the scenery and actually created it before our eyes. So it’s going to be very interesting for that almost radical conception. It’s also interesting for the fact that it’s going to mark bass baritone Eric Owens first Wotan anywhere. He’s been a key figure and Lyric and will continue to be. Christine Goerke who is probably the leading Brunnhilde in the world is going to take over. Not this year but next year with “Walkure.
DP: So a lot of firsts here.
JvR: A lot of firsts.
DP: And I should mention that we invited Eric Owens to share some of his favorite Wagner recordings, so check on our Web site for those. We’ll have the chance to see one of the “Ring” productions each year, and then all of them together.
JvR: Three complete cycles in the spring of 2020. It’s going to be quite a journey over these years. Then the other big event of the season is the first production at the Lyric of the Berlioz “Trojans,” “Les Troyens,” a major undertaking for any opera company. Lyric had talked about it well over a decade ago, but for various reasons was unable to do it. Now we’re getting it with Sir Andrew conducting, another new production, another British stage director Tim Albery. Christine Goerke, who I just mentioned will be Cassandra, Sophie Koch will be Dido, and Brandon Jovanovich will sing the hero Aeneas.
DP: Is it the length of the opera that makes it such a big undertaking?
JvR: Part of it. Though there’s also the sheer difficulty of the music, there’s a huge choral component. The chorus here has been working on it for some time now. There’s a big cast. It’s just a very epic, demanding opera. And the stage craft is probably one of the most demanding of all 19th century Arment romantic operas in terms of the stage craft. So they’ve got their work cracked out for them. Lyric is only doing five performances, interestingly enough. They scale the tickets to the skies and probably will do very well. But if you’re looking for a single ticket you would probably be advised to get an early start on that.
DP: Do you think it’s only five performances because of the expense?
JvR: I think it’s a lot of that. Just the fact that to assemble all the cast for more than those five performances would be very difficult within the terms of a repertoire season. Around that same time we have some other interesting things. The soprano Albina Shagimuratova will be returning in the title role of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” a role that she’s made his signature part around the world. That will be new to Chicago production in October. Ferruccio Furlanetto will be starring in his signature role (or one of them) in “Don Quichotte” of Massenet – not a work that turns up very often, so Massenet fans should pay attention to that.
DP: It just seems like there’s so much at stake with these huge productions coming up. If you were at Lyric working, would you be on edge right now.
JvR: Well I don’t know about that. They’ve certainly had a lot of planning for this. Tech rehearsals have been going on since mid summer. And the chorus, as I mentioned, has been rehearsing feverishly. The orchestra, under Sir Andrew, is up to its ears in Wagner and Berlioz right now.
So I mean yes there are things riding on it. But on the other hand Lyric does not make idle casting decisions and or idle production decisions. So I think matters would seem to be well in hand.
DP: So a lot of excitement happening at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Later on I want to talk about our “second” opera company, as you call them, Chicago Opera Theater. But before we get there, let’s move on to the Chicago Symphony and the Zell music director Riccardo Muti of the Chicago Symphony returns right away to open the season and you’ll see that as one of your highlights.
JvR: Yes, Muti is beginning his seventh season as music director. I think this season ahead shows a bit more balance, a bit more diversity, a bit more adventure from the music director and others than we perhaps got last season. I’m looking forward to a number of things this fall. Muti is kind of known for resurrecting real Italian rarities, particularly this fall with 20th century orchestral repertoire that *isn’t* Ottorino Respighi.
He’s doing a pair of works, the second subscription concert, the mezzo Joyce Di Donato will sing a wonderful cycle by Giueseppe Martucci that nobody knows much called “Le canzone dei ricordi,” which simply means songs of remembrance. It’s a beautiful song cycle. Muti is pairing it with Alfredo Catalani orchestral piece that really nobody knows, I don’t think it’s even been recorded, “Contemplazione.” So that’s quite unusual.*
He’s opening with the Bruckner 7th Symphony, he’s doing the Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. So we’re touching on key Germanic repertoire. Later on, speaking of Germanic repertoire, he’s doing a Brahms cycle and balancing that out with some unusual things.
The first CSO performances ever of the Prokofiev cantata based on his film score for the Eisenstein “Ivan the Terrible.” That’ll be a winter event. We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves because there’s a lot of fall to talk about right now. But I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to the 125th anniversary concert finale of our celebration of that milestone and the orchestra’s history.
DP: Which began officially with the previous gala last fall.
JvR: So this will be October and it will recreate the very first program given by the very first music director Theodore Thomas, who founded the orchestra 1891 in the Auditorium Theater. This will be at Orchestra Hall, of course, and it will include the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto with Daniil Trifonov and the Beethoven 5th Symphony.
DP: And as part of the 125th year, a lot of the focus has been on performing works that the CSO has premiered.
DP: Do you think that that has been an effective way to celebrate the 125th?
JvR: Well I think so. It certainly brought back a number of surprises. I mean who remember that the CSO gave the American premiere of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”? Who knows now that Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” that old Russian warhorse, was another one in that series. So yeah I think it was an interesting survey. I’m sorry in a way that more room could not have been found to do more contemporary scores along with that retrospective.
But you can only do so much in terms of a thirty-five week season. So I found it interesting. I think now we need to move on. We need to demonstrate, perhaps, a stronger commitment to living composers, to commissions, to world premieres, and things like that.
But there is some of that coming up it’s very interesting. Our resident composers are both writing works for the orchestra. Elizabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams will also be represented on the MusicNOW series of course. I do want to talk about the new music component that is so major and looms so large this fall.
DP: Well before we get there one other event I want to mention I’d like to talk about for the CSO is this community concert. Instead of a free concert in Millennium Park, this year, they’ll be going to the Apostolic Church of God on Chicago’s South Side. This is actually been sort of I think in the back of the mind of the maestro for a while hasn’t it?
JvR: The maestro really believes and he sincerely believes in reaching out to as broad segment of the community as possible. He loved the reception the orchestra was given at the Apostolic Church of God last year. I know the church fathers want the orchestra to come back every year. It’s just not possible given the scheduling, given the fact that they also want to do every other year at Millennium Park. So I think it’ll be great.
They’re repeating the program, I believe, with the Beethoven 5th. And the place is packed. I mean the sanctuary was so packed last time they had to move the audience in front of a closed circuit set up in the other chamber of the church. So I think these things are terribly important. I see that they’ve also, speaking of rescheduling, moved the concert that was to have been given last winter at Holy Name there rescheduling that.
DP: Well that must have been quite a scene to see such a packed venue for the orchestra.
JvR: It was extraordinary. It really was. The congregation there isn’t full of regular Orchestra Hall goers, and that’s all part of Muti’s mission. Of course he would love it if people came downtown to hear the regular subscription concerts. But in the meantime, he’s reaching out. He’s doing these really events that are partly designed to bring in new people, new ears, but also to demystify the classical music experience for a non-traditional shall we say public.
DP: I don’t know if a lot of classical music attendees listeners know how big Chicago is in the music scene in the world.
JvR: Well that is part of the objective behind Augusta Read Thomas, who is putting together this festival, which she literally did from the grassroots on up. She’s a professor of composition at the University of Chicago and also former CSO resident composer. This is an incredible event and I think it’s going to bring a lot of attention to Chicago. It’s going to dramatize for a lot of locals how much what really the wealth of talent, creativity, expertise there is among Chicago composers and performers.
Those statistics are pretty boggling David. I mean 32 events representing the work of nearly 90 living composers, more than half of the events free at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance and the Chicago Cultural Center. 27 hours of new music, including 55 world premieres. You know to me it’s fascinating in many ways. But Chicago new music – in my 40 years – here has been a series of islands; independent activity.
There is some spillover of audiences of course. But basically, groups have been kind of working in their own spaces. This is a completely different concept, where they work under the same umbrella, sometimes sharing personnel, really working for the same cause which is to demonstrate, as I say, the breadth the depth the diversity of new music in the city.
It’s a terrific idea. And our hats have to be off to Gusty Thomas for putting this together. It’s an amazing undertaking she co-curated the event with Steven Burns of the Fulcrum Point New Music Project. But most of the credit must go to her and I’m looking forward to it. I’m getting in training right now, shall we say, for this. Six straight days of new music. It’s going to be exhausting, exhilarating, daunting, tiring – all at the same time.
DP: And no two events happening at the exact same time, so you could go to every single concert if you want.
JvR: You could go to every single one. They should give out gold stars or more to people who have lasted the entire marathon. Maybe T-shirts made up with “I survived the marathon. I survived Ear Taxi.
Part of it you can’t really prepare for because so much of this will be brand new, fresh ink pieces you might be familiar with some of the work of some of the composers. But that’s part of the fun of this – to go in and with virgin ears and kind of just take in the experience.
In many ways I don’t want to prepare. I think I want to be dazzled. I want to be surprised. It doesn’t mean that everything is going to be great. Given the sheer concentration of music, that is probably not possible with any new music festival. But the point is that the groups are putting some of their best effort into these new pieces. They’ve been preparing all summer for it. And Gusty has been dashing around taking care of last minute this or that.
It’s a real event for Chicago that the rest of the country will be paying attention to. I know New Music America will be here. They’re doing live streaming. They’re be five sound installations around town just a lot of incredible activity going on.
DP: Did she tell you why she called it Ear Taxi?
JvR: Yeah. It’s kind of funny. She had a kind of vision at one point of a series of composer heads with taxis kind of emanating out of them. So that’s sort of the operative word. t’s it’s a clever name for what I think is a very resourceful, imaginative creation. And so we’ll see how it comes off.
DP: So allow yourself to be taken on a musical journey. I once spoke to the late American composer Steven Stucky, and one of the main points that he wanted to make to the audience (it was before a U of C performance downtown or maybe Chicago Chamber Musicians concert) was that it’s new. Not everything is going to be to your liking and that’s OK.
JvR: That’s right. Why should it be? And I don’t think composers go into it with that idea. But a lot of it may stick. I always look at it like firing a lot of buckshot on the wall and you see what sticks. But it’s great that these composers, 85 or 86 of them, are being represented. And more power to Gusty. I asked her if she wants to do this again, and she kind of rolled her eyes and said, “Well, this was a lot of work.”
DP: Already a year ago we were attending a preview, and I think it was announced two years ago. So if you’ve never been to a new music group in Chicago, here you can go to any of them in the span of one week.
JvR: And for a very little amount of money, too. And as I say, most of the events are free. So I’m looking forward to that very much.
DP: Are there other any other festivals happening this fall that we should be aware of?
JvR: Yes. Going on right now is the 11th Chicago Latino Music Festival, an event that will continue right through December 1st. I see in adjoining studio is Elbio Barilari, the host of WFMT’s Fiesta!, doing his program. Elbio and Gustavo Leone, another Chicago composer, are the dauntless organizers of this festival. Some very nice things coming up on that one as well that people should be paying attention to.
As a matter of fact, they’re kind of piggybacking with Ear Taxi with one of their events. So it kind of highlights some of the symbiosis that’s going on with Ear Taxi and other groups. MusicNOW is going to be giving the last program in Ear Taxi’s packed six days of concerts. I think those are the two main festivals but I could be wrong there could be others lurking around.
DP: You interviewed Elbio when you were writing an article about the Latino Music Festival, and you said something to the effect of “a composer who is Latino could very well be writing music that sounds from anywhere and vice versa.”
JvR: These labels are too confining. Right now, there is a kind of international, musical dialogue going on. There has been for some time, and national schools tend to get subsumed to that. It’s not that there aren’t recognizably “national” pieces being written, but I think we do the composers a disservice by trying to pigeonhole them too much. And I know Elbio and Gustavo have really tried to show the international reach of Latino American composers and Spanish composers as well. So I think we have to respect that and kind of welcome again the diversity that can result.
DP: Now if there had to be a trend in the season – maybe I’m wrong – but it seems like it has to do with early music and Baroque music. Just the last time we were talking, we were talking about the unfortunate demise of Baroque Band, a group that was around for I think 11 seasons. And then all of a sudden, there was a new group. We have Chicago Opera Theater performing music by Purcell later this season. Haymarket, which is an early opera performance ensemble, has been doing very well. Do you see trends in seasons?
JvR: Well, I don’t know about that. Early music comes in a strange waves. It keeps reinventing itself in different forms in Chicago. Out of the ashes a Baroque Band have sprung a couple of very interesting projects. I cited in my fall preview in the Tribune the appearance of a new group called Third Coast Baroque. The nucleus of players of that group will be Haymarket people. They’re welcoming this new kid on the block, the new kid being Vienna-based early music specialist Ruben Dubrovsky, who has started up an ensemble that looks to be a little bit different from what Baroque Band and some of the earlier Chicago groups have been doing. They’re opening with a pair of concerts in, I believe, November, with Monteverdi and Mexican Baroque music. So we’re looking with interest at that group.
Haymarket will have resurrected a Haydn opera, done in period style (at lower pitch). They used to perform at Main Stage, but now they’re making the Athenaeum Theatre their home base. It’s about over 1,000 seats I guess. The flag ship early music group in Chicago, Newberry Consort, will be celebrating its 30th anniversary. Hard to believe. So they’ve got some very interesting things planned as well.
DP: Including Elizabethan comedy?
JvR: Kind of. Elizabethan vaudeville, I’d say, based on an authentic Elizabethan comedian William Kempe. So they’re kind of recreating some of these more popular entertainments that were all the rage during Elizabeth’s time. We have the Callipygian Players, another period ensemble, doing its annual Messiah with Bella Voce. And of course the granddaddy of all established early music ensembles, Music of the Baroque, is opening its season with Nicholas Kraemer doing Handel’s Alexander’s Feast. Early music, you might say, is a growth industry, but we seem to take one step backward for every step forward we do. But it keeps the scene healthy and vital and diverse.
DP: So we’ve talked about our our big 2, the CSO and lyric, and the the new music scene and Ear Taxi Music Festival. What else are we missing here?
JvR: We are missing Chicago Opera Theater we haven’t really talked about what they’re doing. I find it interesting that Andreas Mitisek, the director, is sort of leading a nomadic existence with the company. As you mentioned, two new venues this fall for the company. They’re opening their season in late September or early October with Frank Martin’s “The Love Potion.” It’s basically a cantata or oratorio based on the Tristan and Isolde legend. They’re doing that at the Music Box Theatre. I’ve been told the acoustics are very good. And so that’s going to be unusual in the Mitisek style. And then as you mentioned David, they’re doing Purcell’s “Fairy Queen,” downtown at the Studebaker Theater, which has been very nicely renovated and refurbished. Haymarket players will be the pit band for for that. Jory Vinikour, who is best known as an early music keyboard player, will be conducting. So looking forward to those two events as well.
DP: That’s another group that’s really trying to break the mold. Not only in the Music Box Theatre, but we’ve seen operas that they’ve put on in swimming pools. I’m sure I’m missing some other unusual venues as well.
JvR: Well, it makes sense. You’re not an alternative opera company if you’re just a little Lyric. So leave the big repertoire to Anthony Freud and company and do these pieces that nobody else is doing. Later in the season, COT is doing the Midwest premiere of the Philip Glass Walt Disney opera called “The Perfect American.”
DP: And to specify it’s about Walt Disney but it’s not produced by Disney. [Laughs]
JvR: That’s very true. I don’t think the Disney organization would want to produce it! But this is a big event, and we look forward to that as well. So that’s the main operatic activity.
But there are all kinds of other things. Choral activity is huge in Chicago. That does seem to be growing all the time. Chamber music is another growth industry. We haven’t talked about that. Not a week goes by without a couple of chamber groups doing programs. So it’s a lot to keep the music critics (the few of us who are left) busy, but keeping audiences on the move as well.
DP: I can only imagine. I know that a lot of people are curious as to how you personally keep track of it all. How do you decide what you’re going to go to. You probably get asked this all the time! [Laughs]
JvR: I am, and I never have any ready answer to it. Obviously there are organizations that demand the coverage, the CSO and Lyric. But I try to get around as much as one person can.
DP: You once wrote in your column about the Chicago Youth Symphony or you’ll go out to the suburbs.
JvR: Absolutely. I wish I could get around as much to the ‘burbs as possible, because there’s a tremendous amount of worthwhile activity out there. But what I can’t call attention to in terms of sheer reviewing, I try to call attention to in my weekly column, recommendations in my Friday Classical Corner in our On the Town section. So at least to demonstrate to our readers that this is important, this is something you might want to investigate.
DP: Chris Jones, your colleague, was quoted in an article in The Washington Post about previews, and the tension between allowing groups to work on a production before reviewing it. We have so many, as we’ve discussed before, really small, almost like artistic startup organizations in Chicago. How do you think about reviewing and critiquing those types of groups that are just getting off the ground? Is there sort of a preview period for smaller groups as they’re just starting?
JvR: Yeah I think that’s a good way of looking at it. For a group that is really just starting out, you probably are not going into it with the same standards that you would bring to the CSO or Ravinia or Millennium Park or Lyric. I kind of want to see how a group handles itself, what their credentials are. Maybe give them a couple dry run performances to first of all, find their artistic voice and to show us more of what they’re about. You cut them a little bit of slack, which is not to say that you don’t apply critical standards eventually. We did that with Baroque Band. The Tribune coverage continued over 11 years to see what this group can do for us. Let’s see how they can improve. Let’s see if they backslide. I have to say that in some respects Baroque Band did not measure up to its early promise. And as a critic, you have to say that. That’s completely different from the function that we have to kind of beat the drums in calendars and in columns and preview pieces. But when it comes to actually covering them, then you cover them honestly. Sometimes you cover them tough as the case may be.
DP: Now I know we didn’t get to a lot of groups in Chicago, and there’s just so much and there’s not enough time to do it. But before we run out of time, I did want to ask you about the BBC Proms. You spent a week there just a few weeks ago, and we’ve been featuring music from the proms and concerts from the Proms all month long here on WFMT. I’m not sure that many listeners really understand the significance of the Proms. It’s hard to convey. It’s billed as the largest classical music festival in the world. And you wrote a column saying that it would be hard to imagine this happening in the United States. What is so different about the Proms?
JvR: Well for one thing, I can’t think of any large city in the U.S. that has a Royal Albert Hall, which is the main venue for the Proms. I mean it’s this huge, gargantuan, Victorian wedding cake of a facility. It’s 7,000 seats but it seems much bigger when you’re actually there. That is not possible practically anywhere else in the world. Also, where are you going to get a festival that has resources like the BBC does to bring in [the] Berlin Philharmonic one night, Chicago Symphony the other night Orchestre de Paris, all the London orchestras.
It is just a daily goldmine, a smorgasbord if you will, of performances. What makes it unique is the audience. The Proms audience is unlike any audience anywhere in the world. They are knowledgeable, they are vocal, they are enthusiastic. The Prom-ers stand through the concerts. They get tickets for only $7 each for the privilege of standing and hearing all this music. Friends of mine bought season tickets, and they stood for every concert throughout the summer. My editor was asking me that very question. Could the CSO learn from that? And I thought, well not really, because you’d have to bring over the Albert Hall, you’d have to bring over visiting orchestras and chamber ensembles and early music groups. You’d have to concert operas. And to broadcast it all! BBC Radio, Radio 3, carries every concert live. Can you imagine that happening in America given our commercial restraints? And BBC TV also telecasts a fair number of the concerts. So it’s an amazing hothouse of music literally speaking.
DP: The last night of the Proms, the grand finale, is full of British patriotism.
JvR: The Last Night of the Proms, which is an institution within an institution. One thing I have to also mention that sets the Proms apart and is not necessarily reflected by radio samplings is the amount of new music they do. The BBC commissions many pieces every summer. They may be short pieces, and they may precede more standard repertoire, but they’re out there doing a lot of contemporary music. Not just British composer,s but other European based composers. This year I heard a Matthias Pintscher work for cello and orchestra with Alisa Weilerstein. That also gives a kind of newness and freshness and immediacy to the Proms so it isn’t just a venerable tradition kind of replaying itself in the same old ways every year.
DP: Well it’s something we’ll all have to add to our travel lists. Well John von Rhein, it’s been a lot of fun and very interesting to hear and talk about the highlights of this upcoming season. I would say happy new cultural year, but I guess as you mentioned at the beginning, it keeps on going and going.
JvR: There are no clear lines of demarcation anymore. Thank you.
*Riccardo Muti recorded Catalani’s “Contemplazione” with the La Scala Philharmonic in a 1998 Sony release.
Monday, September 26, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
To hear the best new music, Californians can go to the Cabrillo and Ojai festivals. New Yorkers can go to Bang on a Can, MATA, or Next Wave. Now folks living on the third coast can get their contemporary music fix in festival form too, thanks to composer Augusta Read Thomas.
Thomas has organized the Ear Taxi Festival, Chicago’s first major festival dedicated to contemporary classical music, which will feature more than 300 musicians, 88 composers, and 54 world premieres during 32 events from October 5-10, 2016.
“Three years ago, I was walking through Millennium Park downtown and I was reflecting on what a vibrant scene for contemporary classical music we have here in Chicago,” Thomas said. In her opinion, the Windy City has the “best scene” for contemporary music because the city has an “interactive vibe, people like each other, people go to each other’s concerts, people collaborate.”
Unlike other contemporary music festivals, Ear Taxi will present music only by local composers. “Everybody lives in Chicago, every player, every composer – expect for a few who have had long life chapters Chicago,” Thomas said.
Those who attend the festival to will have the opportunity to meet the composers whose work they experience, Thomas added, and to say to them, “I loved your piece, or I didn’t love your piece, or can we have coffee?”
Thomas hopes the festival will do more than just present lots of new music, but will also affect “deeper culture building where people can engage with their neighbors.” She’s also literally investing in the culture of Chicago. All of the proceeds go to benefits the artists presented during six-day extravaganza.
Most of the events in the festival take place at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance or the Chicago Cultural Center, “The concept was to have things all in one area so you can come for one group and you can stay for the next group,” Thomas explained.”
Because there are so many different composers and musicians presented during Ear Taxi, the offerings are, not surprisingly, very diverse. “There are some pieces that are dreamy, others are ritualistic, some are abstract, some are more pointillist, others are pop or jazz influenced.”
Most events in the Festival present a smorgasbord of music all in one sitting. “Everything is very fast-paced,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of moving parts – a lot of groups and a lot of music.”
Over half the festival events are free; the others are affordably priced at $20 and $10 for students. Thomas said by making new music financially accessible, “You don’t have to worry, ‘I’m gonna be stuck for 45 minutes listening to a piece that I don’t know if I’m going to like, and it’s going to cost me a lot of money to hear it.”
If you are limited on time and want suggestions on which of the many Ear Taxi performances to attend, Thomas has a few suggestions:
Friday, October 7, don’t miss performances by the Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente at the Harris Theater. “You can hear 6 world premieres, meet all 6 composers, and the level of playing is icredible,” Thomas said. “These people can literally play anything!”
Saturday, October 8, in a performance also at the Harris, you can hear almost all the Ear Taxi festival musicians in a single, massive piece by Drew Baker commissioned for the event as “the big blow out, Thomas said. “We’re expecting about 100 people playing and they’ll be sprinkled through the hall.” In addition to Baker’s piece, Third Coast Percussion, Spektral Quartet, Chicago Harp Quartet, and Arcomusical present five works, including two world premieres by Reaction Yield and Carolyn O’Brien, and a Chicago premier by Thomas herself.
Sunday, October 9, hear the Chicago Composers Orchestra perform in Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center. Though the hall, adorned with the largest Tiffany dome in the world, is often filled with music, rarely can you hear a full orchestra in the space. What’s more, “the whole building will be animated with music throughout the weekend,” Thomas said, since the Claudia Cassidy Theater will also host performances. Many events in the theater “involve live and pre-programmed electronics. It’ll be a very interesting sound world in that space on the weekend,” Thomas said.
Though she has enlisted the help of others to mount this massive festival, much of the work has been spearheaded by Thomas. “I’ve been going non-stop for three years, I feel like the Energizer bunny.”
What has fueled her drive to mount such a massive festival?
“It’s important for me as a citizen of the city and as a composer to give back. It’s important for the ecosystem,” she said. When it comes to new music, “some pieces get played and they stick. Some pieces get played and don’t get played again. Some don’t get played and then 10 years later they get played a lot.” But nothing can be performed again if it hasn’t been performed once. “I don’t know of any other festival that has over 50 world premieres,” Thomas said.
Saturday, September 24, 2016 by Louise Frank
Today is the 70th birthday of Marc Neikrug, the highly-respected American composer, pianist, and arts administrator whose accomplishments have been heard on WFMT and around the world for almost four decades. Marc lives a prolifically creative life, albeit on the quieter side of fame, and we’d like to help you know him a little better as we wish him many, many happy returns of the day.
Major American and international orchestras and presenters, such as the New York Philharmonic and the Deutsche Oper Berlin, have commissioned or performed Marc’s chamber music, symphonies, music-based theater pieces, and operas. The lengthy roster of notable musicians who have championed his work includes Zubin Mehta, Alan Gilbert, Leonard Slatkin, Oliver Knussen, Jennifer Koh, James Galway, Kirill Gerstein, Susan Graham, Pinchas Zukerman, Maximilian Schell, and the Emerson, Vermeer, Tokyo and Orion Quartets.
This week, WFMT has aired a number of recordings featuring Marc as composer or as pianist. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra graciously allowed us to rebroadcast the Clarinet Concerto Marc wrote in 2010 for the MSO’s principal clarinetist, Todd Levy. We’ve featured some of the remarkable duo recordings Marc made with his long-time recital partner violinist Pinchas Zukerman, and we’ve shared some of his performances with musicians from the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival where he has served as artistic director since 1998. Finally, on Sunday, September 25th at 11:00 PM, WFMT brings you an encore presentation of Marc’s beautiful Healing Ceremony, the result of his dedication to the Navajo culture of New Mexico and his belief in the healing power of music.
Kerry Frumkin and Louise Frank have gotten to know Marc through their work on WFMT’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival radio series, and it was in Santa Fe this summer that Kerry spoke with Marc about his multi-faceted, musical life. When asked what motivated him towards a life in music, Marc responded with wry seriousness, “Genetically, I had no choice.”
As for important influences, Marc emerged into a virtuosic, unusually curious, and musically omnivorous family. And then there was Stefan Askenase, the piano teacher with a connection to Mozart.
Beginning with his first season as artistic director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Marc has presented commissions and contemporary music on a regular basis. Marc noted to Kerry how the Festival’s devoted audiences have expressed their appreciation: “And now they say, ‘I wonder what the new piece will be.’ People here are grateful their horizons have been expanded.”
Marc confided that his 35-year collaborative partnership with violinist Pinchas Zukerman shines among the highlights of his long career and many accomplishments. “He is the most amazingly intuitive, impeccable musician I have ever known.”
Through Roses, Marc Neikrug’s brilliant account of a Holocaust survivor haunted by guilt and memories, was commissioned by London’s South Bank Festival with the National Theater. Since its premiere in 1980, it has had hundreds of performances in 15 countries and has been translated into 11 languages. A film version of Through Roses was directed by Jürgen Flimm and stars Maximilian Schell.
A commission from the Deutsche Oper Berlin not only enabled Marc to compose his his anti-nuclear opera, Los Alamos, it led to his first visit to New Mexico and from there, to unanticipated, positive and enduring changes in his personal life – and a move from 98th Street and West End Avenue in New York, to Santa Clara Pueblo.
“Audiences are never averse to expanding their knowledge. Presenters are because they’re afraid they’ll lose the audience. In fact, I always believed that was exactly the opposite of the truth.”
– Marc Neikrug on the importance of programming full pallet of musical offerings, including contemporary music, at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
Friday, September 23, 2016 by Michael San Gabino
Chicago native and classical guitarist Molly Manarchy was just a senior in high school when she appeared as the first soloist on WFMT’s Introductions in 2008. Now, Molly composes her own music and experiments with electronic music. We caught up with her to discuss her musical training and current work.
How did you get started in music?
I started tinkering around on the piano since before I can remember. I think music was just such a part of me, and I loved it before I even knew what I was doing. From there, I just went in all sorts of directions. I was able to start with piano lessons, and at one point when I was really young, I was in a little girl rock group. I really wanted to play the electric guitar and rock ‘n’ roll. My parents, when I asked them about it, wanted me to begin with classical guitar, so I started taking lessons. I just really fell in love with classical guitar and that ended up being my main focus all through high school. Now, I’m composing and writing my own music, so I’m in a whole other realm.
How has your classical training influenced what you do now?
Nothing can really honor him properly, but my piano teacher was just this wonderful soul who nurtured me. He taught me how to love music and how to play music from your heart. I was playing music from other composers, yet I felt like those pieces were mine in some way. That really set my love for music. Now that I’m composing my own music, I get to pour love, interpretation, and feeling into it. My teacher prepared me for these two worlds, one as a performer and one as a composer. More technically, I draw from my ear training, theory, and the more scholarly aspects of musical training all of the time.
How would you describe the music you are working on now?
Classical music is such a part of me, and all of the music I’ve played in the past has influenced where I am today. There are times when my music is really melodic, and I just like to focus on that with a slower pace, but there are also times when the energy rises. It’s somewhere between pop and dance with an elevated and electronic beat. It’s all very digital. I spent hours on YouTube trying to learn how to download and record with synthetic instruments. It’s definitely a fun world to go into.
What is your advice for young musicians?
Whatever sound, instrument or platform that’s gravitating toward you, go for it. Just explore the heck out of it and feed your love of music with it because you never know how much joy it can bring you. Also, try writing music. I never did that growing up because I was too scared to, and the moment I got over my fear, it brought me a joy I can’t even express. If composing music is something you’re interested in, start training your ear. Then, you can just go to your keyboard, your instrument, your voice and start playing stuff exactly how you want it. In this day and age, the world is your oyster, and there are just so many amazing possibilities with new technology.