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5 Things For Music Lovers to Do in Chicago This Weekend


There’s always too much to see and do in Chicago. Below are five great performances you can see this weekend in Chicagoland. Which of these performances look the most exciting to you? Tell us what you’re doing this weekend in the comments below.

Hear Wynton Marsalis at Symphony Center


Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter, composer, and music director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Wynton Marsalis, the legendary trumpeter, composer, and music director, has a residency in Chicago this weekend at Symphony Center. He comes to the Windy City with his 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) for three performances. On Friday night, Marsalis and JLCO perform Jazz in the Key of Life, featuring arrangements of popular songs by Stevie Wonder, Burt Bacharach, Donny Hathaway and more. Saturday, there are two opportunities to hear Marsalsis. In the morning, Marsalsis and the JLCO present a family friendly program called Jazz for Young People®: Who is Duke Ellington? with a post-performance Q & A. Saturday evening, the residency concludes with Battle Royale: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra.

For more information about these performances, visit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s website.

Enjoy Grand Spectacle with Lyric’s Nabucco 


Verdi’s “Nabucco” at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Verdi’s spectacular opera Nabucco opens at Lyric Opera of Chicago Saturday, January 22, 2016. The opera dramatizes a struggle between Babylon and Jerusalem originally narrated in the Book of Jeremiah and Book of Daniel in the Bible. Though most famous for the Israelite chorus “Va, pensiero,” which Italians have adopted as an unofficial national anthem, the opera is filled with ravishing music. Baritone Željko Lučić performs the title role of the Babylonian king. Soprano Tatiana Serjan is his alleged daughter Abigaille. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong is Fenena, Nabucco’s true daughter who falls in love with the Israelite Ismaele, played by tenor Sergey Skorokhodov. Carlo Rizzi conducts. Matthew Ozawa is the stage director

For more information about performances of Nabucco, visit Lyric’s website.

You can hear the opening night performance of Nabucco LIVE from Lyric from anywhere in the world streaming from

Experience eighth blackbird’s New Multimedia Work


Contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird poses at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where it is in residence during the 2015-16 season

The Grammy Award winning ensemble eighth blackbird performs a new work, “Hand Eye,” twice at the Museum of Contemporary Art – Chicago this weekend. “Hand Eye” is a collaboration between the Chicago-based ensemble and Sleeping Giant, a collective of six composers who contributed six pieces by each of its members to create a single work. Each piece is inspired by a work of visual art, and projections by CandyStation accompany the entire performance. The New York Times called eighth blackbird’s performance of “Hand Eye” at Carnegie Hall earlier this week “exhilarating.” The ensemble’s Chicago iterations of “Hand Eye” are part of a yearlong MCA residency.

For more information about the performances, visit the MCA’s website.

See Satchmo at the Waldorf


Barry Shabaka Henley as Louis Armstrong in the Court Theatre’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man, two-character show about Louis Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser, has its Midwest premiere at the Court Theatre.  The New York Times said of the play and the author: “Reviewing a play is one thing; writing a play is quite another. Terry Teachout, drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, makes this hat-switching look far easier than it is with his first play…Mr. Teachout has done a fine job of building a fiction-plus-fact theater piece.” Court’s new production was highly recommended by the Chicago Sun-Times, which stars Drama Desk and Obie Award Winning actor Barry Shabaka Henley.

For more information, visit Court Theater’s website.

Hear Grammy Award Winning Lutentist Paul O’Dette


It’s not every day you can hear one of the world’s most acclaimed lutenists in a solo recital. Paul O’Dette, who’s recording of Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfer won the 2015 Grammy for Best Opera Recording, comes to Chicagoland for a recital presented by the Segovia Classical Guitar Series at Northwestern University on Saturday evening. In addition to being an active soloist, O’Dette is the co-artistic director of the Boston Early Music Festival, teaches at the Eastman School of Music, and records extensively, with credits on over 120 albums. At Northwestern, O’Dette presents a program of music by English composer John Dowland, a contemporary of Shakespeare.

For more information about the performance, visit the Northwestern Bienen School of Music’s website.

What are you doing this weekend? Tell us in the comments!


Why DownBeat’s Jazz Artist of the Year, Vijay Iyer, Doesn’t Like the Word “Jazz”


Pianist Vijay Iyer (Photo: Lena Adasheva)

DownBeat magazine gave Vijay Iyer the honors of Jazz Artist & Jazz Group of the Year in its 63rd Annual Critics Poll. But to Iyer, jazz is a bit of a four-letter word.

“A lot of the great musicians had an ambivalent or critical distance from the word jazz,” Iyer said in a recent interview.

Despite having ambivalence towards the word “jazz,” he’s received high honors for work that many would describe as “jazz,” including a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship. In 2014, he joined the faculty of music at Harvard University.

“The word ‘jazz’ is basically an invention of the record industry and it persists more as a business term rather than any real description of anything actually happening musically,” he said. “The label is a little bit arbitrary.”

Iyer’s recent album, Break Stuff, has received high praise from Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and National Public Radio. Most reviews tend to use the word “jazz” somewhere in the description, even if qualified to say Iyer “expanded the boundaries of jazz,” as did NPR.

“The word ‘jazz’ is a tenacious way of framing and stereotyping the actions of musicians and describing what they do,” Iyer said. “From Duke Ellington to Charles Mingus to Miles Davis, they all rejected the word. They had no use for it. John Coltrane said in an interview, ‘Jazz is a word they use to sell our music, but to me that word does not exist.’ That’s a direct quote.”

“That’s not how everybody feels about it,” he conceded. “Some people embrace the term. Some people work with it. Some try to change what it means. Others will just reject the term. What these different reactions should tell you is that the term doesn’t mean anything.”

Iyer thinks one problem with the term jazz is that it often describes people more than the music itself.

“When we’re talking about genre,” he explained, “we’re not really talking about musical style, we’re talking about communities. So what we have here are communities that exclude each other, or communities that get excluded by others.”

A “Creative” Alternative to the Term “Jazz”

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Many musicians, including Iyer and some of his mentors, prefer to describe their work as “creative music.” Iyer said, “I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of friendships, mentorships, and apprenticeships with members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (A.A.C.M.).”

“In 1965 on the South Side of Chicago a group of African American, creative musicians formed an association to support their own endeavors so that they could carry out their own projects with autonomy and empowerment, to build community around their own music making, and to create a kind of mobility that transcended these conventional notions of genre. Even the terms ‘creative music’ and ‘creative musicians’ were created as a way to push back against ‘jazz,’ which has historically and continues to be a limiting term to describe what these people do.”

A.A.C.M members with whom Iyer has worked include Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, and Muhal Richard Abrams.

Iyer has been particularly close with Chicago-born composer, musician, and longtime A.A.C.M. member George Lewis. “I met George over 20 years ago, and we’ve been in constant interaction ever since. He’s been my mentor as a scholar, musician, and composer, and he’s also been a good friend and collaborator.”

Lewis’s written history of the A.A.C.M., A Power Stronger Than Itself, mentions that many creative musicians of color suffer from what he calls the “one-drop rule of jazz.”

Many creative musicians are labeled “jazz” musicians out of convenience, while he writes that “musicians of other ethnicities have historically been free to migrate conceptually and artistically without suffering charges of rejecting their culture and history.”

Iyer agrees that the “one-drop rule certainly afflicts African American artists. My own relationship is more complicated. I’m South Asian American. As far as American music goes, I seem to be between categories. That’s how I’m always seen. I’m usually described as ‘outside’ of whatever someone seems to be talking about. That part of my experience is a corollary to what George is talking about.”

Iyer’s Latest Creative Endeavor


Nasreen at her studio in Bombaby at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, photo from the Sikander and Hydari Collection

In March of 2016, Iyer will release a recording of a new work, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, commissioned by Metropolitan Museum of Art’s LiveArts for the exhibition dedicated to Indian modernist Nasreen Mohamedi.

Iyer described Mohamedi as a “really interesting artist who did ink on paper drawings that have a mystical, almost other-worldly quality to them. There’s a lot of space in her work, a lot of patterning, a lot of fragility, a lot of repetition, a lot of mystery.”

“I am sharing the commission with Wadada Leo Smith, and we created collaborated work inspired by her. Not just her work, but also what we know about her as a person, particularly through her diaries. One phrase that stuck out to me from those is ‘the maximum from the minimum,’ and it became some kind of stimulus for the work.”

Iyer said that he and Smith, who have collaborated for a decade, “transcribed the visuals into a score that we then played. We tried to get between the lines, in a way. It’s a tribute to her. It’s not a translation. We’re trying to play beyond the page.”


Wadada Leo Smith’s “Cosmic Music” (2008)

Smith happens to be an accomplished visual artist himself, whose work was recently displayed at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. Iyer said, “Wadada created a score in his own way, which is very colorful in contrast to her own work that was drained of color later in her life. That was his way of meditating on her spirit.”

Iyer said that in A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, “you’ll hear patterning and cycles, but you’ll also hear cycles fracture and disrupt each other, and lastly this electric spirit emerging among these shards of structure.”

To learn more about Vijay Iyer, visit his website.


Tech at the symphony: Boston orchestra loaning patrons iPads



BOSTON (AP) — A night at the symphony usually means silencing cellphones and mobile devices before the music starts.

But as part of an effort to draw in a younger audience, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is loaning select patrons iPads loaded with content specific to each performance.

They’ll be able to view sheet music for the pieces being played, video interviews with musicians, podcasts about the composers and analysis on the works themselves. They’ll also get a close-up view of the conductor from the musicians’ point of view from video monitors set up in the hall.

The storied orchestra, which was founded in 1881, is the first to offer audience members use of customized iPads, according to Kim Noltemy, the group’s chief operating and communications officer.

But other orchestras are also trying to incorporate technology.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is among a handful that has developed its own mobile application to let audience members follow along with program notes, like translations of vocal parts, in real time from their personal devices.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic rolled out “VAN Beethoven,” a customized van that gave residents last fall a chance to enjoy a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony using virtual reality headsets.

And the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera, Virginia Symphony Orchestra are among those offering “tweet seats,” specially designated sections where concertgoers are encouraged to interact on Twitter with a concert official as they gave running commentary during select performances.

Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, an approximately 800-member group based in New York, says orchestras are trying to appeal to a new generation’s changing expectations for the concert experience.

“It’s about enhancing the visual experience of listening to a symphony orchestra,” he says. “It’s also about making the experience more intimate and creating a more visible contact between the performer and the audience, which is something younger audiences really seem to value.”

The Boston orchestra is rolling out the iPads as part of a broader effort to draw patrons, particularly younger ones, to their underperforming Friday concerts.

During “Casual Fridays,” symphony tickets are being offered at significantly lower prices, ranging from $25 to $45, down from as much as $145, patrons are being encouraged to dress casually, and the hall is hosting pre- and post-concert receptions with live music, snacks and a cash bar.

The first performance was Jan. 15; two others have so far been scheduled for Feb. 12 and March 18.

Efforts to appeal to new audiences are not without opposition from symphony traditionalists.

“There’s been resistance all along to screens in concert halls” observes Rosen, of the League of American Orchestras.

Jeremy Rothman, vice president for artistic planning at the Philadelphia Orchestra, says concerns over its LiveNote app, which debuted this season at select concerts, have diminished as concertgoers and musicians alike saw the technology in action.

The app, he says, has helped some patrons become more informed and therefore more engaged in the performance while the app’s design — grayscale text on a black background — minimizes the impact on others.

“No one is more concerned about preserving the live concert experience as we are,” Rothman says. “This is absolutely at the core of what we do. So we asked a lot of the really hard questions up front and are continuing to listen to feedback now that we’ve put it in people’s hands.”

In Boston, Noltemy says the symphony orchestra has taken steps to make sure it isn’t alienating its core audience.

For now, the iPads will be offered only to the 110 people seated in the rear orchestra. That section is under the balcony overhang, she notes, helping limit the impact of screen glow on other audience members.

The devices will also be on a dim setting, and patrons will be given headphones to tune into the video and audio segments.

“We’d prefer people watch the iPad podcasts before the concert during the pre-concert reception,” Noltemy says. “But, as you can imagine, we have no control over that.”

By Philip Marcelo for the Associated Press (January 18, 2016)

“Everybody has the blues” : Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Power of Music to Bring People Together

Martin Luther King, Jr., famous people, miscellany

Martin Luther King, Jr., famous people, miscellany


Poster for the first annual Berlin Jazz Festival in September 1964

What did Martin Luther King, Jr. think about music? King was a powerful rhetorician in addition to being one of America’s most important leaders. But his only words about music come down to us from remarks he offered for the first annual Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964.

King visited Berlin from September 12 to September 14, 1964. On September 13, he visited the Berlin Philharmonic, where he spoke at a memorial service for John F. Kennedy. He attended many other events, spoke, preached on both side of the Berlin Wall, as a detailed schedule here shows.

The first Berlin Jazz Festival did not begin until 10 days after King left the city, on September 24. Though King did not speak at the Festival itself, as was once assumed, his remarks about jazz were printed in the Festival program.

And what a Festival it must have been. The lineup included the likes of Miles Davis and his Quintet, Dave Brubeck, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe!

While the outstanding roster of musicians at the Festival would have impressed Berliners, King wanted to impress upon audiences there that jazz has potential as a powerful political tool. Read his full program note below.

God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music.

Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

King notes that jazz was an important part of the “Freedom Movement.” Of course, there’s a lot of music directly inspired by King and his legacy.

One of the most poignant tributes to King is by musician and activist Nina Simone. Her song “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” appeared on her album “Nuff Said!”, much of which was recorded from a live concert that took place on April 7, 1968, just three days after King was assassinated.

In “Why?” Simone poses painful questions that perhaps we should continue to ask ourselves: “Will my country fall, stand or fall? Is it too late for us all? And did Martin Luther King just die in vain?”
YouTube Preview Image In contrast with Simone’s thoughtful ballad, Steve Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” pays tribute to King in a totally different way. Stevie Wonder, who like Simone was both a musician and activist, recorded a new version of “Happy Birthday” dedicated to King in 1981.

In fact, one of the reasons we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is because of Wonder’s musical homage to King. At the time he wrote the song, King did not have a day commemorating his life and legacy.

Stevie Wonder performed the song at the Rally for Peace on January 15, 1981 in on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and said:

“It’s fitting that we should gather here, for it was here that Martin Luther King inspired the entire nation and the world with his stirring words, his great vision both challenging and inspiring us with his great dream.

“People have asked, ‘Why Stevie Wonder, as an artist?’ Why should I be involved in this great cause? I’m Stevie Wonder the artist, yes, but I’m Steveland Morris, a man, a citizen of this country, and a human being.

“As an artist, my purpose is to communicate the message that can better improve the lives of all of us.

I’d like to ask all of you just for one moment, if you will, to be silent and just to think and hear in your mind the voice of our Dr Martin Luther King.”
YouTube Preview Image In 1983, Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law declaring Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a national holiday, the first of which was observed in 1986. Who said music can’t create change?

Of course, Simone and Stevie Wonder are not the only musicians to pay tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. What are your favorite musical tributes to King?

Lyric Opera of Chicago Announces 2016-17 Season



Thursday, January 14, 2015, Lyric Opera of Chicago announced its 2016-17 Season, scheduled to include 8 opera productions on its main stage, 1 opera production at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, and 1 musical, part of its ongoing American Musical Initiative. Casting includes Eric Owens, Piotr Beczała, Christine Goerke, Sondra Radvanosvky, Joseph Calleja, and Ana María Martínez.

The season opens with Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first of four new productions that Lyric will mount as part of an entire new Ring Cycle. Lyric’s general director, Anthony Freud said, “From every point of view, a new Ring is the most massive challenge that any opera can undertake.” Lyric’s music director, Sir Andrew Davis, conducts a cast that includes Eric Owens (Wotan) and Stefan Margita (Loge). Five singers make their company debut in Rheingold: Samueal Youn (Alberich); Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Fricka); Okka von de Damerau (Erda); Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Fasolt); and Tobias Kehrer (Fafner). Ryan Opera Center alumnus Rodell Rosel returns to Lyric to perform the role of Mime in the production. The artistic team also includes director David Pountney and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca. Johan Engels, who nearly completed designs for the Rheingold, passed away in 2014 as the production was being developed. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins has been enlisted in his stead. Rheingold will run for 6 performances between Oct. 1 and Oct. 22, 2016.

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, known for the title character’s famous mad scene at the end of the opera, comes to Lyric in a production owned by the Foundation of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Grand Théâtre de Genève. Conductor Enrique Mazzola will lead Albina Shagimuratova (Lucia) and Piotr Beczała (Edgardo), who perform the leading roles. Ryan Opera Center alumnus Quinn Kelsey will perform the role of Enrico. Adrian Sâmpetrean makes his Lyric debut in the role of Raimondo. Paul Brown designed the production. Lucia will run for 7 performances between Oct. 15 and Nov. 6, 2016.

Berlioz’s The Trojans has its Lyric Opera premiere in a new production staring acclaimed soprano Christine Goerke as Cassandre. Sir Andrew Davis conducts Sophie Koch (Didon), Énée (Brandon Javanovich), Okka von der Damerau (Anna), Lucas Meachem (Chorèbe), and Christian Van Horn (Narbal), a Ryan Opera Center alumnus. Tim Albery directs the production, which features designs by Tobias Hoheisel. Five performances of Berlioz’s rarely-performed, epic opera run between Nov. 12 and Dec. 3, 2016.

Massenet’s Don Quichotte comes to Lyric in a new-to-Chicago production owned by the San Diego Opera. Ferruccio Furlanetto performs the title role. Clementine Margaine and Nicola Alaimo make their company debuts in the roles of Dulcinée and Sancho, respectively. Additional casting has not yet been announced. Sir Andrew Davis conducts. Matthew Ozawa is the stage director. Six peformances of Don Quichotte run between Nov. 19 and Dec. 7, 2016.

A new production of Mozart’s Magic Flute comes to Lyric, developed by director Neil Armfield and designed by Dale Ferguson. Lyric’s previous production of Flute premiered 30 years ago. The cast for the premiere performances of the new Flute includes Andrew Staples (Tamino), Christiane Karg (Pamina), Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night), Adam Plachetka (Papageno), Christof Fischesser (Sarastro). Matthew Polenzani joins the cast for the final performances of Flute to perform the role of Tamino. Ryan Opera Center alumnus Rodell Rosel plays Monostatos in all of the performances. In total, eleven performances of Flute run between Dec. 10, 2016 and Jan. 27, 2017.

Bellini’s Norma comes to Chicago in a co-production developed with Canadian Opera Company, Grand Théâtre de Genève, and San Francisco Opera. Sondra Radvanosky plays the Druid high priestess, Norma. Elizabeth DeShong, a Ryan Opera Center alumna, performs the role of Adalgisa. Russell Thomas and Andrea Silvestrelli appear as Pollione and Oroveso respectively.  Riccardo Frizza leads from the podium, making his Lyric debut. Kevin Newbury is the stage director. Norma runs for 7 performances from Jan. 28 – Feb. 25, 2017.

Bizet’s Carmen returns to Lyric, though in a new co-production with Houston Grand Opera. The roles of Carmen and Don José will be shared. Ekaterina Gubanova and Joseph Calleja perform together from Feb. 11 – Mar. 6. Anita Rachvelishvili and Brandon Jovanovich perform together from Mar. 16 – Mar. 25. Eleanora Buratto and Christian Van Horn perform the roles of Micaëla and Escamillio, respectively, in all of the performances. Harry Bicket conducts performances of the opera through Mar. 6, Ainars Rubikis takes the baton on Mar. 16 for the remaining performances. Rob Ashford will serve as both the director and choreographer for the production. David Rockwell is the production set designer, while no costume designer has yet been announced. 11 performances of Carmen run between Feb. 11 and Mar. 25, 2017.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin returns to Lyric in the same production seen at the Civic Opera House during the 2007-2008 season, which was originally created for the Metropolitan Opera and owned by Canadian Opera Company. Mariusz Kwiecień performs the title role opposite Ana María Martínez as Tatiana. Charles Castronovo and Alisa Kolosova make their Lyric debuts in the roles of Lensky and Olda. The cast is rounded out with Katharine Goeldner (Larina), Jill Grove (Filipyevna), Dmitry Belosselskiy(Gremin), and Keith Jameson (Triquet). Alejo Perez makes his Lyric debut conducting all performances. Paula Suozzi will serve as stage director for the revival (Robert Carsen is the original stage director). 9 performances of Onegin run from Feb. 26 – Mar. 17, 2017.

Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, the fifth installment in Lyric’s American Musical Initiative, will run for 25 performances from Apr. 28 – May 21, 2017. Casting and artistic staff have not yet been announced.

Other performances that Lyric presents as part of its 2016-17 season include:

  • “Celebrating Plácido,” a performance with Plácido Domingo and others, will include Act Two of Verdi’s La Traviata and other repertoire to be announced. Two performances will take place Mar. 9 & 13, 2017
  • Lawrence Brownlee and bass-baritone Eric Owens present a Subscriber Appreciation Concert on April 9, 2017.
  • Violinist Itzhak Perlman performs a recital on April 23, 2017.
  • Lyric Unlimited presents the Chicago premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance for two performances on March 24 and 26, 2017.

WFMT will broadcast Lyric’s mainstage opera productions throughout the 2016-17. Tune in to 98.7 WFMT in Chicagoland or from anywhere in the world at For information about the current season of Lyric Opera broadcasts, click here.

For more information about the upcoming season at Lyric Opera, visit the company’s website.

We Asked Kids To Write Short Stories Inspired by Classical Music And The Results Were Amazing


Esperanza and her brother Diego write short stories inspired by Dvořák’s New World Symphony at 826CHI

Literature has inspired many great pieces of music over the centuries. We wanted to know what great literature newcomers to classical music would write.

So we asked the young folks at 826CHI, a Chicago non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students with their creative and expository writing skills, to stretch their imaginations with a different kind of creative writing.

The students each wrote short stories inspired by one of the most beloved works of classical music, Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

But first, to get their creative juices flowing, we listened to three other pieces of classical music: Mozart’s A Little Night Music, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles.

After listening to recordings of each piece, the students listed words they would use to describe the sounds the heard. The Mozart reminded them of “people out and about,” “ballet,” and “dancing,” because the music was “fast,” “exciting,” “lively,” and “sweet.”

Night on Bald Mountain, not surprisingly, elicited different reactions. The students described the piece as “violent.” Mussorgsky’s famous tone poem reminded them of “horror movies,” “danger,” “surprise,” “fast action,” “chasing,” and “mystery.” One student, who apparently was bitten by the Star Wars bug, thought the work sounded like Darth Vader!

Six Bagatelles, on the other hand, sounded like “a rehearsal,” “getting ready,” “going forward and backward,” “like a lake with swans fighting,” “commotion,” “exaggerated,” “skipping,” and “chasing.”

Now that the young word smiths had some practice finding words to describe the sounds they heard, it was time for them to craft short stories inspired by Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

During his time in America, Dvořák became interested in Native American music, and he based the Scherzo in his New World Symphony on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha.

But we did not tell the students the back story to the piece or even the title.  Instead, we asked each student to do their own brainstorming and to write down words that came to mind while listening to the music.  Here is what one student, Esperanza, came up with:


Esperanza did brainstorming for a short story while listening to the Scherzo from Dvořák’s New World Symphony

After sharing some of their personal brainstorming, the students listened to the Scherzo again.  This time, they developed their ideas into a short story.  Read Esperanza’s story below, or hear her read it herself.


Dvořák may have based the Scherzo of his New World Symphony off Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” But Esperanza, a student at 826CHI, created her own short story to the music. Click below to hear Esperanza read her story.

As each student read his or her story out loud, they quickly realized that music can be interpreted in many ways.  One student’s story had surprising historical specificity!


One 826CHI student, Ivanova, must have known the composer was inspired by the New World. Her short story takes place during the Boston Tea Party! Click below to hear Ivanova read her story.

At the end of our session, each student had their own story.  “All of our activities are project-based, so the ultimate goal is to have students walk away with something,” explained Communications & Program Manager Abi Humber.

For longer projects, 826CHI has an in-house publishing center, where professional designers and illustrators volunteer their talents to help produce a professionally bound book.  These books are sold in the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co.,  and the proceeds help ensure that 826CHI’s programming is free for all students.

“Whether it’s a book or a podcast, we want the students to have a tangible representation of their work and progress,” continued Humber. From hosting Chicago Public School field trips to creating multidisciplinary workshops with volunteers, 826CHI strives to show students that writing can, in fact, be fun.

What music gets your creative juices flowing? Tell us in the comments below.

To learn more about 826CHI, including program information and volunteer opportunities, visit their website.

How Handel’s Messiah Got a Gospel Makeover


Marin Alsop, who commissioned “Too Hot to Handel,” conducts a performance of the work

Handel’s Messiah has been a perennial favorite since the oratorio premiered in Dublin in 1742. Like any beloved classic, the work has also been a favorite for composers to adapt. Handel reworked Messiah several times during his own life. Mozart created an arrangement of the piece, too. Since, everyone from David Axelrod to Gabriela Montero has offered their own take on Handel’s masterpiece.

Bob Christianson 2

Composer Bob Christianson, one of the co-creators of “Too Hot to Handel”

Too Hot to Handel: The Gospel Messiah offers a contemporary, American interpretation of Handel’s original. I spoke with Bob Christianson, one of the composers who arranged Too Hot to Handel, about how he and his colleagues gave Messiah a modern make-over.

“It was Marin Alsop’s idea. She wanted to do this,” Christianson said. “When she would conduct the regular Messiah, people would always say to her, ‘I love the Hallelujah chorus, but why does it take so long to get there?’ So we decided to make some changes.”

Alsop enlisted Christianson and composer Gary Anderson to update Messiah. “We met at Marin’s apartment in New York and all three of us just started picking and choosing which movements to do and which not to do. We decided to focus on the Christmas section of Messiah, and we also ended up not using a bass soloist, requiring only soprano, mezzo-soprano, and tenor soloists.”

“One we decided how the feel should be and who the singers should be, we basically we went off and worked independently. Gary did his charts and I did my charts, and we basically didn’t talk for months.”

Before sitting down to re-arrange one of the most popular pieces of music in history, Christianson had only performed Messiah once. “I was in the choir at SUNY Potsdam and we performed the complete Messiah  and it was great. But it did take too long to get to the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus.”

Some musicians perform Messiah many times each year. Christianson found that having less familiarity with the work was beneficial to him, however.  “When I sat down to work on my charts, I wasn’t as encumbered by the original as I might’ve have been if I had been more familiar with it. Gary didn’t have much more familiarity with it, either, which I also think was good.

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When Christianson and Anderson divided up the work to re-arrange Messiah, “Gary basically did all of the really great big band charts, and I did more of the stuff that gets people standing up and singing,” he explained.  “I am alright with big band writing, but I am nowhere near as good as Gary.”

But what changes, exactly, did the composers make to Messiah?

“Some of the tunes stay fairly close to the original,” Christianson said. “One number, ‘Why do the nations,’ is basically exactly the same melody and harmonic progression.”

“But in general, we tended not to just take the chords and the melody and put a different groove to it. We recomposed most of it. For ‘He shall feed his flock’ I use the same melody for about four measures, then I go off into something different. Once the singer knew where I wanted to go, I’d have them use that as a template to improvise.”

For those that might think this is sacrilegious – Handel recycled some of his own music for Messiah, making changes when necessary. For example, the famous chorus “All we like sheep” was actually an Italian duet, “Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi,” originally.

“All we like sheep” from Handel’s Messiah

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“Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi,” an early Italian duet by Handel

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The changes that turned “Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi” into “All we like sheep” are relatively straightforward. But Handel was known for taking a simple melodic idea and “spinning it out” into a new piece using a technique called Fortspinnung (literally “spinning-forth”). The main “riff” in the violins of Handel’s aria “Va col canto lusingando” is the same as the riff in his aria “Hush, ye pretty warbling quire,” though how those riffs are developed are entirely different (click the links to hear them on YouTube).

So, if Handel can totally rework musical material, what’s to stop Christianson and Anderson from spinning out Handel’s melodies into soulful, modern expressions?

“It’s called the ‘gospel’ Messiah, and rhythmically it absolutely has gospel in it, but it’s more of an R&B and jazz type of thing. I have been influenced by a lot of classic funk, so it has a bit of a Tower of Power feel to it, too.”

Christianson has incorporated some of these sounds into the score from what he has learned working alongside some of the greatest musicians of our time, including Aretha Franklin and Chaka Chan. He even had the same vocal coach as Renée Fleming when they were students together.

“In New York,” he said, “I have been lucky enough to be a studio musician with some of the best guys in town, so I got to absorb a $#!& load of stuff. As a result, I feel comfortable writing in a lot of different styles.”

“I like to think of myself as a chameleon,” he added. “If I had to write the same stuff all the time I would probably do something else. I like doing stuff that’s different. But no matter what style you work in, who you are as a composer will come out.”

Despite some of the alterations to the score, Too Hot to Handel is “not as different from the original as something like Handel Rocks [a rock version of the piece]. They just took the words, they totally changed everything else.”

Since Too Hot to Handel premiered, the work has undergone few changes, other than minor corrections, Christianson said. “There’s something that works and we don’t want to change it. I tended to overwrite a little bit. Gary was more conservative and added a little more space in the score. Sometimes, when you’re really eager as a composer, you fill all those spaces with extra stuff, and so he helped me realize where to put some space in it.”

“There’s also a lot of room for the singers to make the pieces their own, so there’s some flexibility there. Sometimes the orchestras change things too, especially with the grooves. The grooves they play in Chicago are not exactly the same groves Gary and I wrote and that’s totally fine. There’s enough freedom in the piece to do that.”

To learn more about upcoming Chicago performances of Too Hot To Handel, visit the Auditorium Theatre’s website.

To learn more about Bob Christianson, visit his website.

Mystery Writer Sara Paretsky’s 5 Favorite Pieces of “Mysterious” Classical Music


Chicago-based author Sara Paretsky is known for her crime and detective novels, particularly her series about the fictional private investigator V.I. Warshawski.  The Washington Post named Paretsky’s newest novel in the Warshawski series, Brush Back, one of the best mystery books of 2015.  Paretsky, a longtime fan of classical music, continues to incorporate elements of music in her novels.  Here are her favorite pieces of classical music that have an air of mystery about them.

  1. Rolf Martinsson’s Double Bass Concerto No. 1
    YouTube Preview Image “I always love low instruments.  I think there’s an erotic quality to that deep tonality, so that’s why I gave V.I. a lover who plays the double bass.  I found the piece just by looking online for bass repertoire for him to play, and I really love it.”
  2. Igor Stravinksy’s L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)
    YouTube Preview Image “I had a chance to take part in a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale a few years ago, and I played the devil which was very fun.  When you perform it, you really understand what’s going on in the piece.  It’s mysterious, dangerous.”
  3. Mozart’s Requiem Mass in d minor (K. 626)
    YouTube Preview Image “Especially from the beginning of the piece to the Dies irae, you feel this early modern awareness of death and Hell in this music.”
  4. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in d minor, op. 47
    YouTube Preview Image“I actually heard this piece the other week on WFMT – the beginning of this symphony is haunting, and             fits this mysterious context perfectly.”
  5. Stevie Wishart’s Zephyr
    “Stevie Wishart is a composer who is interested in early music, and she composes contemporary music with an early music sensibility.  Since a lot of the music isn’t fully composed, there’s a lot of room for interpretation.  It’s very ominous in a higher pitch – you feel like you’re listening to glass breaking.”

To learn more about Sara Paretsky and her novels, visit her website.

Did You Know Philip Glass Composed Symphonies Inspired by David Bowie Albums?



David Bowie, who passed away January 10, 2016 at age 69, inspired artists in every medium over the decades. But, do you know that Philip Glass composed symphonies based upon Bowie albums?

Glass composed not one but two symphonies inspired by two Bowie albums. His Symphony No. 1 “Low,” composed in 1992, is based on Bowie’s album, Low, and his Symphony No. 4 “Heroes” is based on Bowie’s Heroes.

The “Low” Symphony premiered on August 30, 1992 and was performed by the Junge Deutsche Kammerphilharmoniein Munich, Germany. The symphony was recorded later by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

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Glass wrote in his own notes for the symphony:

“The record consisted of a number of songs and instrumentals and used techniques which were similar to procedures used by composers working in new and experimental music. As such, this record was widely appreciated by musicians working both in the field of “pop” music and in experimental music and was a landmark work of that period.

I’ve taken themes from three of the instrumentals on the record and, combining them with material of my own, have used them as the basis of three movements of the Symphony. Movement one comes from “Subterraneans,” movement two from “Some Are” and movement three from “Warszawa.”

My approach was to treat the themes very much as if they were my own and allow their transformations to follow my own compositional bent when possible. In practice, however, Bowie and Eno’s music certainly influenced how I worked, leading me to sometimes surprising musical conclusions. In the end I think I arrived at something of a real collaboration between my music and theirs.”

Hear an excerpt from Glass’s “Low” Symphony below:

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Listen to the full album of Low below:

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Years later, Glass turned to Bowie and Eno again. In 1996, he composed his fourth symphony, which like his first symphony, took themes from a Bowie-Eno album – “Heroes,” in this case – as material for an original work.

The Heroes Symphony was recorded with conductor Dennis Russell Davies, like the first, though with the Sinfonieorchester Basel.

Listen to an excerpt from Glass’s symphony, then compare to Bowie’s original album. Can you hear the original Bowie/Eno themes in Glass’s new work?

Glass’s Heroes Symphony

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Bowie’s Heroes

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David Bowie recently made a splash in Chicago when the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago mounted a major exhibition about his life and career. Read more about Bowie and the exhibit here.


Blair Tindall, Author of “Mozart in the Jungle,” on Her Best-Selling Book and the Hit TV Series


Gael García Bernal, who recently one Best Actor in a T as Rodrigo,


The cast of “Mozart in the Jungle” from left to right: Saffron Burrows, Malcolm McDowell, Lola Kirke, Barnadette Peters, Gael García Bernal

Blair Tindall’s book, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, shocked readers a decade ago when it exposed some of the low points of high culture. Written largely from the author’s own experiences as a freelance oboist in New York, the book has inspired Amazon’s new series Mozart in the Jungle.

The series garnered two Golden Globes for  Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy and Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy (for Gael García Bernal), and it has resonated with classical music aficionados and newcomers alike.

I spoke with Blair about Mozart in the Jungle and its adaptation to an award-winning TV show.  _________________________________________________________________________________

Q: For those who haven’t read the book, what is Mozart in the Jungle about?

A: Mozart in the Jungle refers to musicians trying to make their way in the jungle of the classical music world.   There’s a lot more in it for people who want to do research on music in the late 20th century.  It’s a varied book, and it has a lot of fun stories with musicians.

Q: You also write a lot about your experiences during performances – what’s going through your mind and your feelings.  Is this difficult to write about?

A: It was difficult to write about, because that’s what we [musicians] do.  We don’t realize that others don’t experience these feelings on a daily basis.  But I have to say the show has addressed a really great topic: amusia.  It’s a medical condition where the musician cannot hear tones as they’re happening, so it sounds like you have water in your ear.  Gael García Bernal’s character, Rodrigo, has this condition.  I think that sums up what a lot of us feel while performing.  We’re playing this music, and it’s hard to say exactly what we’re going through and for others to understand what’s happening.

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Q: How did the book become a television series?

A: I always hoped that it would become a TV series or a movie.  When I was writing the book, I got other books about writing screenplays.  I saw that it was a three part structure, and I wrote the book in that way, hoping that would attract somebody.  Fortunately, somebody caught on, and it was a really big somebody!  Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman created it, and they have just done a terrific job.

Q: Do you have a lot of involvement writing for the show?

A: Yes!  Various directors and creators call me and ask questions.  I’m very happy about that, because I’d like them to get as much right as possible.

Q:  What are the inherent difficulties in representing the classical music world for a TV series?

A:  I think the major difficulty is people who aren’t familiar with classical music need to get a brief education, and it’s impossible to do.   They have to present things in little bursts so that others understand the characters and topics, and that is close as they can come.

Q: One of the main characters of the series, Hailey (portrayed by Lola Kirke), is an aspiring oboist, like you were.  Did you meet with her during filming?

A:   Not really – I only met her when Season 1 was finished shooting, but she did learn to play the oboe.  Just by bizarre coincidence, and the creators would having no way of knowing, but [Lola Kirke] is a dead ringer for me at that age!  She really is in every way portraying me – from the silly giggle, to the naïveness, to just the way she looks.

Gael García Bernal, who recently one Best Actor in a T as Rodrigo,

Gael García Bernal, who recently won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, as Rodrigo in “Mozart in the Jungle.”

Q:  We get to see a lot of close-ups of the actors playing musical instruments.  You mentioned Lola learned to play oboe, did the other actors learn to play musical instruments?

A: They all did – they can all play an instrument and have had at least 2 years of lessons by now.  They all have coaches on the set, too.  But nobody is going to get up there and play something like the Elgar Cello Concerto. [Laughs] But Saffron Burrows, who plays the beautiful, tall cellist Cynthia, has been studying with Carter Brey, the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic.

Q: A lot of people will be excited to see some musician cameos.  Was it easy to convince them to appear on the show? 

A:  I’m very old friends with Deborah Borda, the CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Deborah and I had communicated, and she said that Gustavo Dudamel was interested in the show.  I set her up with the production company, and off we went!  And actually, Dudamel turned out to be a bit of an acting genius!  His little role is quite funny.

For some of the other guys, I didn’t really know until I was on the set.  I was walking by the trailers seeing Emmanuel Ax, Alan Gilbert, Joshua Bell – so I stayed and talked to them, and they all seemed to be having a blast.

Q: You are very candid in the book, and so much is portrayed on screen as well.  Was it difficult to be open about your personal experiences?

A: The book came ten years before the series, but it was very difficult.  There are a lot of online trolls, and it’s very difficult to put yourself out there like that.  They’ll take whatever you say and magnify it 100 times.  I’m kind of used to it now.  And it’s okay, because I think what they’ve done with the series is making a lot of people interested in classical music and that’s all I ever wanted.

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Q: What advice would you give to a budding musician?

A: Learn computer coding – really! Learn to be versatile.  And just as it’s always been, it’s never going to be what your predecessors experienced during their careers.  You’ve got to figure out what the new thing is in music, and right now it’s a lot related to social media and journalism.   You have to learn how to blog or whatever the new thing is.

The playing always comes first and foremost, but as my experience has shown, a lot depends on getting yourself out there and teaching others about classical music.

Q: What is your take on the future of classical music?

A: I don’t think things ever got bad, but it did get financially diluted for a while.  It’s definitely on the way up.  In regard to the television show, I think it really has exposed people to classical music, and they’re excited about it.  They’re not afraid of going to concerts.

I was telling my story to someone on a recent vacation, and she said, “That’s your show?  I thought I hated classical music, and now I have tickets to the San Diego Symphony.”   Yesterday, somebody had posted on Amazon saying something similar: “I used to hate classical music, but now I have a new obsession.”  And that is what I was aiming for.

The book and television series Mozart in the Jungle are available at