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Video: William Bolcom and Grant Park

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom

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

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

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

Today’s Mexican Composer

Mario Lavista, born in Mexico City, 1943

Mario Lavista, born in Mexico City, 1943

Sunday at 3:00 pm

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

Federico Ibarra

Federico Ibarra, born in Mexico City, 1946


Leonardo Coral, born in Mexico City, 1962










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


Composer and WFMT program host Elbio Barilari

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

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


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

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

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

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

Video Exclusive with Ravinia Soloist Saimir Pirgu

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Saimir Pirgu and James Conlon.

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


Classic “Cav and Pag”

Italian tenor Franco Corelli

Italian tenor Franco Corelli

Tuesday, August 12 at 8:00 pm

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


Lucine Amara as Mimi

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


Brooklyn-born American tenor Richard Tucker






American soprano Eileen Farrell

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

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


American contralto Lili Chookasian


Italian baritone Anselmo Colzani

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


Why You Should Hear this Composer

Christopher Theofanidis

Live broadcast, Friday at 7:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week LA, Next Week Ravinia

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

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

LA Opera, Saturday at 12:00 pm

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


Tenor Saimir Pirgu, c. Fadil Berisha

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


Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia, c. Leonid Semenyuk

More on Albina Shagimuratova.

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

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

More on Saimir Pirgu.

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


Albina Shagimuratova and Saimir Pirgu

“Relevant Tones” Thinks Global, Acts Local

"Relevant Tones" host Seth Boustead

"Relevant Tones" host Seth Boustead

Sunday at 5:00 pm

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

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

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

Listen to podcasts of Relevant Tones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do the scenes differ much?

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


Exclusive: Backstage with Pink Martini’s Storm Large


Live broadcast, 6:30 pm

“Rock, metal, and jazz” vocalist – that’s Storm Large, according to Wikipedia. Never mind the fact that her band Pink Martini is described as a “jazz, Latin, lounge music, classical” group.

By design, Storm Large defies classification (she’s also been a playwright, an actor, and had a cult-like following as a punk rocker).

The aptly named Storm Large (that is her given name) has been described as audacious and brazen; the prologue to her memoir reads: “People think I’m nuts. They think that I am a killer…a dangerous woman. They think that I am a boot-stomping, man-chomping rock ‘n’ roll sex thug with heavy leather straps on my well-notched bedposts…That’s what I like people to think, anyway.”

Large seems willing to speak frankly about any topic, but especially her twenty years as a singer, beating the pavement, slipping from one musical genre to the next, touring, networking with club owners, college radio stations, and taking as many jobs as possible – all to fulfill one ambition: to sing. Though her natural talent has a lot to do with her being in Chicago this week, she’s quick to say it’s taken an enormous effort.

Singer Storm Large is the soloist for Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra. Backstage at the Pritzker Pavilion, Ms. Large brightened when she saw Rachmaninoff’s name on the orchestra schedule. She called out to a staffer, asking if that was part of her concert (it isn’t). Nevertheless, she nodded contentedly upon learning she was sharing the evening with Schubert.

On Tuesday after rehearsal, the Grant Park Music Festival hosted a live Q & A via twitter with the 10,000 followers of Storm Large. Fans from as far as Germany and Buenos Aires tweeted their questions. She tweeted back on everything from Pink Martini to her next book topic (see video).

Storm Large performs Weill’s sultry one-act opera with the Grant Park Orchestra and conductor Carlos Kalmar. The program includes the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome, and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. WFMT’s live broadcast of the concert begins at 6:30 pm.

Want to See Northern Lights? Either the Arctic Circle or Grant Park Will Do

Grant Park Music Festival, Pritzker Pavilion, c. Christopher Neseman

Live broadcast, Friday at 7:30 pm


Composer Christopher Theofanidis

While the Grant Park Orchestra season coincides with the dog days of summer; and composer Christopher Theofanidis hails from the desert southwest, their upcoming concert together goes to another extreme: the northern lights in the dead of winter.

The light shows of the aurora borealis have long been seen as omens or the source of fear, folklore, mysticism, and wonder. It is this spectacular nighttime phenomenon that inspired the new piece, The Legend of the Northern Lights, being premiered by the Grant Park Orchestra this week. Theofanidis will employ the spoken word as well as an enormous movie screen suspended above the orchestra, with projections of the northern lights choreographed to the music.

For the visual component, Adler Planetarium astronomer José Salgado took cameras to the top of the world, a town called Yellowknife in the Northwest Territory. To produce the visuals for this week’s concert, Dr. Salgado went into the night with temperatures plunging to minus 25-35 degrees Fahrenheit, though he and his associate both said without hesitation: the sky is so amazing, you don’t really notice the cold.

Why Yellowknife?

In a recent interview with WFMT, Dr. Salgado explained there are a number of factors that will improve one’s chances of photographing the northern lights.

1. Go north. There is a halo known as the auroral oval, which encircles the earth’s magnetic poles. Dr. Salgado positioned himself below the ring in order to shoot time-lapse photos of the lights filling the entire sky.


NASA illustration of the Auroral Oval

2. It has to be winter in order to view the night sky (the sun doesn’t set in the summertime).

3. A climate with low precipitation lessens the likelihood of cloud cover.

4. Minimize light pollution – go somewhere that’s far from streetlights, billboards, etc.

5. Luck.

For his composition, composer Christopher Theofanidis draws equally from science and from earthbound attempts to make sense of the phenomenon – the mythology – incorporating a children’s story to be read by a narrator.

Coordinating all the elements is a different kind of challenge. The narration and visuals for the Grant Park production are bound tightly to Theofanidis’s piece. Thus, conductor Carlos Kalmar can reference a click track. Dr. Salgado will control the visuals from a laptop, and narrator Frank Babbitt (violist in the Lyric Opera Orchestra) will have a score with musical cues.

Dr. Salgado co-founded KV 265 (the catalog number of Mozart’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) with Chicago musician Anne Barlow to combine the presentation of art and music.

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


See actual footage to be used in the Grant Park concert:


CSO Principal talks Elgar and Muti

CSO Principal Cello John Sharp, Madrid, c. Todd Rosenberg

CSO Principal Cello John Sharp, Madrid, c. Todd Rosenberg

Sunday at 1:00 pm

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Principal Cello John Sharp plays the Elgar Cello Concerto with Riccardo Muti on the next Chicago Symphony Orchestra broadcast.

Anyone who has seen Riccardo Muti catch air on the podium, might be hard-pressed to think of him as an old dog. Last spring, the youthful, now 73-year-old conductor demonstrated his willingness to learn new tricks: he led the CSO in his first-ever performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra Principal Cello John Sharp playing the Elgar Concerto with music director Riccardo Muti, c. Todd Rosenberg




For the soloist, the orchestra’s principal cello John Sharp, working so closely with the maestro only reinforced the conductor’s reputation for being thorough: “He’s certainly not a musician who listens to other peoples’ recordings, and sort of puts something together from that. He really studies it and responds to the music from a basis of being a good musician, great intelligence and experience and insight. In the end, I think it comes out quite individually.”

Musicians who work with Maestro Muti know not to expect fanciful or self-indulgent departures. According to Sharp, “He responds very carefully to what the composer writes in the score, which can be quite complicated in this piece because there are a lot of markings, a lot of changes of tempo, and expressive things, and it’s hard to put them all together to make sense. I think some performances, you have to sort of give one way or the other or maybe compromise or something. He seems very attuned to what’s there in the score and tries to respond to that.”



Edward Elgar, 1919

As for the piece, Sharp shares the opinion of many who see Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto as a lamentation for an earlier age. Indeed, letters reveal a composer distraught over the senseless destruction wrought by the First World War. The concerto followed the War in 1919. Two months after completing the piece, Elgar conducted the premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra – it was not a triumph.

According to Sharp, the War “meant huge changes in England and in Europe, and sort of the…end of an era. I think people about the same age as Elgar…had this sense of loss and sorrow for what once had been.”

Sharp talks about the hostile climate in which Elgar presented his concerto, “He also was…considered very old-fashioned. By that time Schoenberg had been writing; Pierrot lunaire had premiered – and all kinds of Stravinksy and things like that – so the world was turning modern.”

Months after the premiere, Elgar’s wife, Alice, died. Though Elgar lived another 14 years, he wrote little else after that.


The opening bars of the concerto in Elgar’s hand, 1919 (click to enlarge), c. Royal College of Music

After the premiere, Elgar’s Cello Concerto gradually became popular. It was recorded twice in the 1920s. Players like Paul Tortelier and Mstislav Rostropovich performed the piece; though it was the highly individualized playing of English cellist Jacqueline du Pré, in the famous 1965 recording, that caught the world’s attention.

Sharp praises du Pré, but cautions against the temptation to model a performance after hers: “…du Pré’s recording, I think, casts a long shadow over the piece. In a way it’s even hard to listen to other people after that. It was just a very intense and special sort of performance. She was very individual, and one shouldn’t really imitate those things…too much.” According to Sharp, it’s really essential to spend time with the score and find one’s own way.

John Sharp has served as principal cello of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since the 1986-1987 season. He was appointed to the post by Sir Georg Solti.


Jacqueline du Pré, age 20, rehearses the Elgar Concerto with Sir John Barbirolli. Over 40 years earlier, Barbirolli had played in the cello section with Elgar conducting the piece. c. David Farrell/EMI Classics