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Exclusive: Backstage with Pink Martini’s Storm Large

Storm

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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

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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.

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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.

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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

Spanish Fever at Grant Park

Flamenco Dancer

Grant Park Orchestra live, Wednesday at 6:30 pm


Christian Tetzlaff plays Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole.

February-March 1875, Paris – Within the span of one month, the Parisians saw the premieres of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and Bizet’s Carmen.  For the audience, there was something different, something exotic about those pieces – eventually people would be whistling them in the streets.

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Violinist Christian Tetzlaff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It took time for those works to gain traction – especially for Carmen (tragically Bizet had only a few months to live, and would never know Carmen‘s popularity). Lalo’s Symphonie, written for Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, wasn’t regularly performed intact until Yehudi Menuhin took it up in the 20th century. Nevertheless, both pieces anticipated a host of other works, all written in the Spanish style by people who were not Spanish, including Ravel, Chabrier, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Lalo looked to the southwest for the Symphonie, filling it with irregular rhythms (see the score) taken from Spanish folk music, especially flamenco.

Until the 1870s, the German school had dominated European music outside of Italy. The French appetite for German culture cooled, however, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871); right when Bizet and Lalo were working on those pieces.

Download the score to Lalo’s Symphonie_espagnole,_Op._21_(orch._score)

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The Scherzando movement of Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole” puts accented chords on different beats, upsetting the rhythmic pattern. (click to enlarge)

Q. Have you ever tried to count along with Lalo’s Symphonie? It’s tricky to count out the second movement without following the music. (See page 41 in the score.) Part of the movement’s charm comes from the irregularly accented chords.

The Grant Park Orchestra welcomes violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff as soloist in Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. Carlos Kalmar conducts a program that includes a symphony by Ernest Chausson and Halffter’s Tiento. WFMT’s live broadcast of the concert begins at 6:30.

 

 

 

Ongoing Debate: Does Music Have Meaning or Not?

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin, Monday-Friday this week


Do you think music has meaning?

Music can move you; music can make you want to move. For most listeners, it’s a simple transaction. There are those who look deeper into our relationship to music, however, and wonder why it affects us so. Igor Stravinsky was one of them.

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“Exploring Music” host Bill McGlaughlin

Not always inclined to subtlety (think of the raw primitivism of The Rite of Spring), the Russian composer made a statement that has started arguments ever since: “music is … powerless to express anything at all.”

I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality.

—Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 1935

Many of his fans weren’t and aren’t ready to hear that. Violist Nadia Sirota wrote in a 2011 article for WQXR, “I find it almost enraging, actually! I am one of the biggest Stravinsky fans I know, and yet this quote seems totally out of place given the way his music moves me.”

Most musicologists and classical musicians find themselves defending or refuting Stravinsky’s statement at some point in their career, depending on where they stand on the issue.

The argument flared up as recently as the April issue of Opera News. It was a book review in which essayist Jonathan Cross counters Stravinsky’s statement: “key works of [Stravinsky's] years in Europe and the U.S. can in fact be heard as cogent expressions of the sadness of exile.” According to Cross, he can demonstrate that Stravinsky’s music specifically communicates those feelings. On the other hand, one in the Stravinsky camp might argue that if the music did express those feelings, Cross wouldn’t need to write out an explanation.

“What you’re going to see are…pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds…of a group of artists. In other words, these are not going to be the interpretations of trained musicians, which I think is all to the good.”

—Deems Taylor, Fantasia, 1940

Stravinsky’s famous statement was again reprinted in a recent CD release of violinist Gil Shaham and conductor David Robertson, which gave radio host Bill McGlaughlin the idea of turning the debate over to the music. This week on Exploring Music, Bill poses the question of whether or not music expresses anything, playing works side-by-side, in a week-long series called “Emotion and Meaning in Music.” The series opens with a story about violinist Gil Shaham and NPR’s Robert Siegel disagreeing over whether or not the Stravinsky Violin Concerto is emotional music:

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Gil Shaham and David Robertson with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA; the two are brothers-in-law and frequent collaborators, c. Chris Lee

“The over-publicized bit about expression (or non-expression) was simply a way of saying that music is supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. It was aimed against the notion that a piece of music is in reality a transcendental idea “expressed in terms of” music, with the reductio ad absurdum implication that exact sets of correlatives must exist between a composer’s feelings and his notation. It was offhand and annoyingly incomplete, but even the stupider critics could have seen that it did not deny musical expressivity, but only the validity of a type of verbal statement about musical expressivity. I stand by the remark, incidentally, though today I would put it the other way around: music expresses itself.”

—Igor Stravinsky, Expositions and Developments, 1962

David Robertson Puts Youth in Spotlight

Conductor David Robertson

Live from Grant Park, Monday at 6:30 pm


On Monday evening, David Robertson returns to the Chicago stage, this time with the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.

There is the notion that some conductors work with youth orchestras while hoping to move on to professional orchestras – not so with David Robertson. He has the big career; and for this National Youth Orchestra tour, he’s brought with him another major artist: violinist Gil Shaham.

The orchestra members, ages 16-19, compete from across the country for their seats. They train together for two weeks with principal players from major orchestras (Chicago Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Robert Chen and Principal Percussion Cynthia Yeh are among the faculty), before setting out on an eight-stop tour.

Music director of the St. Louis Symphony since 2005 and a frequent guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Robertson is an ardent advocate for putting young people together with classical music. It’s been a cornerstone of his tenure with a number of different orchestras and ensembles, including Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris and the Orchestre National de Lyon.

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Rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, c. Chris Lee

 

 

A father of four, Robertson’s perspective, no doubt, is shaped in the home, but also by people who were influential in his own development. One mentor was the international conductor Pierre Boulez. Robertson reflects on the way Boulez treated him when he was a young artist.

“But of course that’s where the strength comes, is that I had really formed some core ideas about music. And so when I came into contact with his, like a marvelous Venn diagram, we saw where they overlapped and we saw where they didn’t, and it didn’t bother either of us.”

–Conductor David Robertson on working with Pierre Boulez as a young conductor

Violinist Gil Shaham, c. Luke Ratray

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David Robertson leads the National Youth Orchestra and soloist Gil Shaham at the Grant Park Music Festival on Monday. WFMT’s live broadcast starts at 6:30 pm.

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Britten: Violin Concerto
S. C. Adams: Radial Play
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Summer Migration, Payoff for Chicago

Harris Hall, c. Timothy Hursley

Harris Hall, c. Timothy Hursley

Sunday, July 27 at 6:00 pm


If you’ve ever seen a nature documentary about the Serengeti, you might have some sense of the migratory patterns of classical musicians. There are music centers, like watering holes, to which players journey in order to refresh, commune with others, and nurture the young. The Aspen Music Festival is one of those places.

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Joan and Irving Harris at Aspen in 1992. Harris Hall opened in 1993.

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Harris Hall, interior

One only has to read the biographies of Chicago’s top musicians to find artists who have been students, teachers – or both – at Aspen. For generations, the summertime festival has drawn Chicago Symphony concertmasters, including Robert Chen, Sidney Harth, Samuel Magad, and Rubén González (who served as concertmaster of the Aspen Festival Orchestra). CSO principal percussion Cynthia Yeh is there this summer, as is an accompanist from Lyric Opera, and faculty from some of the city’s top music schools.

In short, Aspen is a rich ecosystem for musicians. They work with promising young artists, they play with and hang out with other top musicians, and get to work closely with major composers. At summer’s end, the artists make their return journeys, bringing their gifts and inspiration to others around the world. For Chicago, where residents spend many months indoors, having a vibrant community of musicians helps make winters more bearable.

Soprano Laura Wilde, member of Lyric Opera’s apprentice program, the Ryan Opera Center, gets some pointers from Sasha Cooke. c. Alex Irvin

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Bass-baritone Eric Owens works with student Isaac Kim in Harris Hall. c. Alex Irvin

Composers at Aspen, summer 2014: Steven Stucky, Lowell Liebermann, Robert Sierra, Christopher Theofanidis, Augusta Read Thomas (of the University of Chicago), and George Tsontakis

On Sunday, July 27 at 6:00 pm, WFMT presents a broadcast special about the festival that enriches so many musicians. Looking at the first 20 years of the Harris Concert Hall in Aspen, the broadcast features works by John Corigliano, Philip Glass, and Joan Tower, as well as commentary by one Chicago woman who has made it her mission to better the world through support of the arts, the recent National Medal of the Arts Honoree Joan Harris. more

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Composer Joan Tower

During the show, composer Joan Tower speaks about the piece she wrote for the opening of Harris Hall at Aspen, the fifth in a series she calls Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. Her fanfares put a spin on Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Tower describes them as tributes to “women who take risks and who are adventurous.” She dedicates the piece to Joan Harris.

Joan Tower recalls having some trepidation about this last part: “…the first four fanfares that I wrote, they were written for specific women that I had known for a long time, that I admired; they were uncommon women. This was being written for a woman I had never met…and then I met her, and she turned out to be, indeed, this very uncommon woman.”

Listen to Joan Tower discuss the piece:

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Chicago’s Joan Harris to Receive National Medal of Arts

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The National Medal of Arts, designed by Robert Graham

Program note: on Sunday, July 27 at 6:00 pm, tune into WFMT for a broadcast special about Harris Hall at the Aspen Music Festival.

On Monday, July 28th, the President and First Lady will recognize Joan Harris for her tireless support of the arts. It was announced on Tuesday that she would be a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

The visage of Joan Harris is a familiar one around the lobbies of the Civic Opera House and Symphony Center. She’s also a fixture at the venue that bears her name, Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park, though her stewardship of the arts reaches far beyond the windy city.

Joan Harris is the namesake of the Harris Concert Hall at the Aspen Music Festival. She is a trustee of the Juilliard School, and a member of the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board. She has also served on the President’s Commission for the National Endowment for the Arts.

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The Harris Theater (left) on East Randolph Street in Chicago, designed by Thomas Beeby

This year, as Chicago’s Harris Theater marks its tenth anniversary, Joan Harris reflects on the creation of that performance space:

“Buildings are not just buildings. The most important thing about a cultural building is building it from…the inside, when there’s a perceived need that needs to be met by the creation of a cultural building. For years, when I was working with Chicago Opera Theater, we had no good, viable place to perform. The same was true about other small or midsize companies. So, a number of us tried…to find a place where we could share space. It didn’t work. It really wasn’t until…the early 90s when a group of foundations got together and said, ‘Let’s take a good look at this.’”

Listen to WFMT’s Lisa Flynn in conversation with Joan Harris about the Harris Theater and her lifetime love of the arts:

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Joan Harris chairs the Irving Harris Foundation, a private family foundation that supports the arts and humanities, early childhood initiatives, and Jewish philanthropy. Through the foundation, she established the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, and is a major supporter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow series, WFMT’s Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin, and the Chicago High School for the Performing Arts.

Joan Harris is a lifetime trustee of the the Francis W. Parker School, a member of WFMT’s Radio Committee, and past president of Chicago Opera Theater, and the Illinois Arts Alliance.

Joan Harris established Chicago’s Harris Theater in order to broaden access to the arts in downtown Chicago, and to serve as a partner to emerging and midsized performing arts organizations. The Theater helps organizations build infrastructure and develop resources for growth and long-term organizational sustainability.

Other recipients of the 2013 National Medal of Arts include:

  • Julia Alvarez, novelist, poet, and essayist, for her extraordinary storytelling
  • Brooklyn Academy of Music, presenter, for innovative contributions to the performing and visual arts
  • Bill T. Jones, dancer and choreographer, for his contributions as a dancer and choreographer
  • John Kander, musical theater composer, for his contributions as a composer
  • Jeffrey Katzenberg, director and CEO of DreamWorks, for lighting up our screens and opening our hearts through animation and cinema
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, writer, for her contributions as a writer
  • Albert Maysles, documentary filmmaker, for rethinking and remaking documentary film in America
  • Linda Ronstadt, musician, for her one-of-a-kind voice and her decades of remarkable music
  • Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, architects (receiving individual medals), for their contributions to architecture and arts education
  • James Turrell, visual artist, recognized for his groundbreaking visual art

 

From Soviet Refugee to iTunes Favorite

YevgenyKutik2

Live on Wednesday at 12:15 pm


When Yevgeny Kutik was a boy, his mother declared, “Enough.” She packed up her family and left the Soviet Union.

There wasn’t one reason for leaving. It was a series of reasons: Yevgeny was bullied in Kindergarten; she was laid off because her employers exceeded their “quota of Jews”; her older son had picked up racial slurs at school – against their own people. America seemed to be a better home for this family.

Most of the belongings of three generations had to be left behind, including mother’s violin – that was declared a national asset. With just a few suitcases in hand, children, parents, and grandparents bid, “Do svidanya.”

Today, Yevgeny Kutik is making a name for himself as a concert violinist. He’s been featured on NPR, in The New York Times, and has climbed to #6 in Billboard Magazine.

YvgenyKutik1Here Yevgeny Kutik shares some things about his story and how it shaped him as an artist today:

Describe the background of your commercial release, Music from the Suitcase.

My family left Minsk, Belarus, now the former Soviet Union, in 1989. We left in search of religious freedom, much like millions of other Soviet Jewish families were doing at the time. As a condition of leaving, you were allowed to bring only a very limited number of personal belongings and almost no money. My mom had collected a number of fascinating music scores from her days as a violinist and decided to squeeze them into one of our suitcases, along with our other most cherished belongings. Growing up as a kid, I paid little attention to these scores (which were sitting on our shelf) but always associated them with this family journey. As I became older I became increasingly interested in exploring my past, and these scores were an integral part of this process. I compiled the music for this album from these collections.

Your family came to the U.S. seeking a better life. How are they doing and do they feel like Americans now?

We are all extraordinarily grateful for the wonderful community that embraced and helped us upon our arrival in the USA. This country has given me and my family amazing opportunities to live free and accomplish wonderful things. We are truly lucky.

Do you ever wish you could have studied violin in Russia or have you found a musical home in the United States? 

I had some absolutely incredible violin teachers here in the USA, starting with my mother. I worked for several years with the late, esteemed Russian pedagogue, Zinaida Gilels, in Boston. After that I worked for over eight years with Roman Totenberg, a legendary Polish violinist who saw most of the 20th century unfold before his very eyes.  He passed away at 101, and was a major influence on my playing, musicianship, and much more. Following this, I went to work with Donald Weilerstein. Mr. Weilerstein needs little introduction from me, of course. His unique approach to music really helped me to see the violin differently.

I read you were kind of excited about the other artists side-by-side with you on iTunes. Who were they? Does their music influence you or is it something you enjoy more when you’re “off the clock”?

I am grateful for the wonderful attention and reception “Music from the Suitcase” has received. When it was featured on iTunes for a week, I found myself in the company of artists such as Juan Diego Florez, Anne Akiko Meyers, Simone Dinnerstein, and many others. It was truly an honor to be featured among such great artists, whose work inspires me on a daily basis.

On Wednesday, Yevgeny Kutik plays at the Chicago Cultural Center on the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts. WFMT’s live broadcast begins at 12:15 pm.

More on Music from the Suitcase.

Lyric’s New Opera (Just a Peek)

Lyric Opera Music Director, Sir Andrew Davis, c. Todd Rosenberg

Lyric Opera Music Director, Sir Andrew Davis, c. Todd Rosenberg

Getting beyond “The book was better”

Last week, when Lyric Opera presented a sneak peek at the opera based on Ann Patchett’s bestselling novel Bel Canto, general director Anthony Freud quickly closed the door on comparisons to the book.

Addressing a gathering of patrons and members of the media, Mr. Freud shared some of the thinking behind the creative process, saying it must “stand on its own terms as an opera, rather than just…the book as a play set to music.” This is to say that composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz do take liberties with the book – and were encouraged to do so – but always in the interest of making the strongest case for the story.

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Composer Jimmy López (center) flanked by librettist Nilo Cruz (left) and director Kevin Newbury (right), c. Todd Rosenberg

 

The opera Bel Canto, a work in progress, has been a team effort from the start. The composer and librettist have had support from the production staff. At last week’s gathering, they took notes as members of the Ryan Opera Center sang completed scenes to the accompaniment of two pianos. Novelist Ann Patchett was not in attendance, but has been part of the process as well.

To be sure, books and operas are different species. In a novel, one can read the thoughts of a character. The opera composer can use the aria for this purpose, but must be mindful of the people who will be sitting in the theater seats – too much of something can cause a show to drag. According to Mr. Freud, it’s important for the new work to feel like it “couldn’t be anything but an opera.”

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Anthony Freud and Sir Andrew Davis, c. Todd Rosenberg

Ann Patchett evidently is unconcerned about her book in the hands of this creative team. At the read-through, Sir Andrew Davis chuckled as he recalled sending her the libretto. When Lyric got no reaction from her, they began to worry. Months went by with no communication. Later, Ms. Patchett admitted she was so determined to keep her distance, she hadn’t read it. Eventually, she did read Cruz’s libretto. According to Sir Andrew, she emailed saying it was “more beautiful” than the book.

The Bel Canto project was the inspiration of Lyric Opera Creative Consultant Renée Fleming, who had had it on her mind to develop new works. In 2012, she talked to a roomful of journalists about how much she enjoyed Ann Patchett’s books, Bel Canto in particular. From there, she said she combed through piles of scores and composer bios. In the end, Peruvian native Jimmy López was the unanimous choice of Lyric’s artistic triumvirate (Fleming, Davis, and Freud).

Sir Andrew Davis conducts members of the Ryan Opera Center, c. Todd Rosenberg

To date, Jimmy López opens the opera much like the book, with a soirée at the vice president’s residence in Peru (the book calls it a “South American country”). Most of the guests are international visitors. The Peruvian government presents American opera star Roxane Coss as the entertainment. Just as she finishes her aria, a pack of scrappy freedom fighters raids the mansion, taking the guests hostage. Government forces arrive, sealing captives and captors inside the mansion.

The characters are crafted with seamless efficiency by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and librettist Nilo Cruz, while the opening music thrusts the party guests into the utter foreignness of the situation. The music of Jimmy López shimmers with the wildness of the surrounding landscape, as if it might overtake the manicured house – which it does.

Throughout the drama, one is remotely aware of a military stand-off beyond the perimeter (this is an ongoing hostage crisis), but the real story unfolds inside the house. López weaves his way through the interactions of rebel, guest, and opera star – all of whom are stuck together like fish in a fish tank.

Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi (soprano) Bradley Smoak (bass) and Jonathan Johnson (tenor), c. Todd Rosenberg

Author Ann Patchett uses music like a magic elixir. Cut off from the outside world, the characters seem suspended in time. Captors and captives begin to love the singer’s art. As the story progresses, they lose their grasp on their former lives and embrace a different version of themselves, finding beauty and harmony together.

Imagining Bel Canto as an opera could prove to be a stroke of genius. This story makes brilliant interplay between people who don’t speak the same language – opera is nothing if not a multilingual art form. While professional opera singers are expected to sing French, Italian, and German like native speakers, many adding Spanish, Russian, and English; Bel Canto author Ann Patchett uses all these and ups the ante, adding Japanese and Quechuan (an Andean tongue which predates the Incas).

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Director Kevin Newbury with composer Jimmy López (in blue), and librettist Nilo Cruz (left) applauding the Ryan Opera Center after a reading of completed portions of “Bel Canto,” c. Todd Rosenberg

Bel Canto the opera makes a great show of the singers’ linguistic prowess. A key character, polyglot-interpreter Gen Watanabe, volleys one dramatic moment after another, helping the others discuss everything from the shingles to late-night liaisons. A host of benign interactions happen at lightning pace, endearing these captives to the audience, while providing a catchy vehicle for the composer.

Ultimately the situation is a “powder keg,” to use Anthony Freud’s words – not because of the differences between dignitaries and rural militiamen (and women), but because of differences between their makeshift community and the outside world.

It might be difficult to entirely wrest oneself from the experience of having read the book before seeing the opera. On the other hand, if fans of novelist Beaumarchais grumbled about his treatment in Marriage of Figaro or Barber of Seville, we’ve since forgotten. At the end of last week’s preview, the gathering of press and patrons was eager for more Jimmy López.

The premiere of Bel Canto is slated for the 2015-2016 season. Do read the book, but see the opera first.