Archive for July, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Four Musicians Who Play as One

PaCIFICA newcdcoverI discovered the passionate, virtuosic playing of The Pacifica Quartet only early this year which means I am quite late to the game. This ensemble has been accumulating to-die-for critical reviews for years and capped 2009 by bagging a Grammy Award and being named “Ensemble of the Year” by Musical America magazine.

My long delay in taking notice could be that, other than at the University of Chicago, there is no regular chamber music series at a downtown venue. Also, for decades, the major planets in the chamber music’s tiny universe were the Emerson, Guarneri, Juilliard, Tokyo, and Vermeer Quartets. Besides knowing the ranking of America’s “Big Five” symphony orchestras (plus Berlin, London and Vienna), the average music lover may not recognize other fine, top-drawer ensembles.

However, a tectonic shift has rocked the chamber world of late. The Vermeer and Guarneri Quartets disbanded. Thus the time seems right for The Pacifica Quartet to expand its appeal and take its rightful place at the top. Pacifica plays 90 concerts a season, tours Europe three or four times and has bookings out to 2013.

They are already critical darlings. The Times (London) gushed over their “stupendous, breathtaking virtuosity.” The New York Times hailed their “astounding performances” while the local Tribune praised their “astonishing talent, energy and dedication.”

The Pacifica was formed in 1994 though its current four members—Simin Ganatra, violin, Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin, Masumi Per Rostad, viola and Brandon Vamos, cello–have played together for almost a decade. They appear poised to reap the rewards of their musical vision and dedicated commitment.

mitv_artistinfoSuch a record of longevity is rare in the chamber music world. Masumi Per Rostad,  who joined in 2001, says the failure rate for string quartets is 99.99%, a figure akin to that for restaurants.

Why?  In the critical early stages, Rostad notes, “a quartet must figure out how to manage its career.” A quartet is very much like a small business and, without good advice and some business sense, it will flounder and most do.

Rostad also listed other factors impeding success. The difficulty of finding time when all the members can rehearse is one cause. Members have to juggle rehearsal schedules with other playing-and paying-gigs (Pacifica members practice up to 5 hours each day). Members may also not be sure how to react or interact as an ensemble. Rostad estimates that it takes 2-3 years for a group to develop a “defined identity”.

How has Pacifica persevered? Rostad credits receiving sound early advice about repertoire and key business details from Paul Katz of the Cleveland Quartet and David Finckel of the Emerson Quartet. More importantly, their adoption of a “peripatetic model of touring plus teaching plus a variety of repertoire” has enabled the members to feed their musical passion as well as feeding themselves.

Pacifica is the resident quartet at both the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana is their home base) and at the University of Chicago. The residencies provide valuable time to develop new repertoire while they teach classes and collect a salary.

Earlier this year, the quartet received its newest honor: being named quartet-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where they will play the entire cycle of 15 Skostakovich Quartets in the upcoming season and the full cycle of Beethoven Quartets during 2011-12.

“Every award or appointment,” Rostad says, “helped us and took us to the next level. One (award) doesn’t stick out since all are integral to our success.”

If you are not familiar with this marvelous quartet, I urge you to catch Pacifica this Tuesday evening, August 3rd, at Ravinia’s Martin Theater. Tickets are available by calling the Ravinia box office at 847/266-5100 or online at www. Ravinia.org.

PostHeaderIcon The Jazz Loft Project

smithIf you’re a jazz lover, like me, particularly the be-bop sounds of the 1950s and ‘60s, then I urge you to not miss the new exhibit, The Jazz Loft Project, now at the Chicago Cultural Center. It’s a photography exhibit capturing a special time in jazz with a fascinating back story.

The exhibit’s brochure tells that story best. “In 1957, W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated former LIFE photographer, walked out of the home he shared with his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, New York and moved into a dilapidated, five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue (between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth Streets) in New York City’s wholesale flower district.”

Abandoned lofts were common in that run-down industrial area in those days. Smith took over the apartment on the fourth floor from his artist friend, David X. Young. The rent was $40 a month for a bare bones room with crumbling staircases, no running water or electricity.

Smith turned the studio into his living room, darkroom and photo perch. He  set up a tripod to clandestinely shoot scenes of street life below.  He also wired the building, creating a surreptitious recording studio, and from 1957 to 1965, he recorded the midnight jam sessions that rocked the apartment above. It became a favorite haunt of New York musicians.

Jazz-Loft-Project.- 2jpgThe sessions usually began after the clubs closed and ran until 5 or 6 a.m. the next  morning. They featured some of that era’s jazz giants: bassists Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, pianists Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, saxophonists Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman and  guitaritst Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney.

Smith said that his ambition was to produce a book “about the building itself…out the window and within the building, because it’s quite a weird, interesting story.” The photographs and tapes were unknown in Smith’s lifetime (he died in 1978) and only the indefatigable efforts of researcher, Sam Stephenson, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, brought Smith’s photos and recordings to light in 1998.

Digging through Smith’s archives, Stephenson discovered that Smith had developed 1,447 rolls of film at the loft (roughly 40,000 pictures) and made 1,740 reels (4,000 hours) of stereo and mono audiotapes. Besides the jazz jams, Smith recorded radio and TV programs of the day to produce a kaleidoscope of time and place within 821 Sixth Avenue’s walls.

I was fascinated when I came across the exhibit by accident in New York this March and am thrilled that the Cultural Center is hosting it through September 19th in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery on the Fourth Floor.

My only complaint is that the installation hangs the photos in a hodgepodge manner so that evocative street scenes are placed alongside the jazz photos. Since Smith’s intention to focus on the building had a two-fold purpose, capturing the world both inside and out, it would have been better to divide the jazz and city shots for greater viewing clarity.

Upon entering the Yates Gallery, turn right immediately and enter a private hearing room where you can listen to some of these historic tapes and radio broadcasts.  A must-listen are the rehearsal tapes of Thelonious Monk’s ensemble preparing for their historic Town Hall concert of 1959.

This private listening space is a distinct improvement over the New York installation. It’s the best way to gain a proper orientation for what you’ll view on the walls.

The Jazz Loft ProjectTo date, Stephenson and staff have documented 591 persons who appeared in Smith’s photographs and tapes. In addition to the musicians who came to 821 to play, many other cultural figures passed through its ramshackle stairways and studios. Among them were artists Salvador Dali, Willem DeKooning, Franz Kline, photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, actors Paul Newman, Zero Mostel, Jackie Gleason, writer Norman Mailer and dance choreographer, George Balanchine. Only Dali and Mailer appear, however, in the exhibition photos.

Stephenson has also published a book on the project: “The Jazz Loft Project, Photographs and Tapes of Eugene E. Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-65 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Stephenson will give a Gallery Talk on Thursday, August 26th at 12:15 p.m.  A film featuring jazz pianist/composer, Jason Moran, and commemorating Monk’s Town Hall concert with Smith’s audio and visual documentation of the original rehearsals will be shown on Sunday, August 8th at 1 p.m. and again on Friday, September 3rd at 6:30 p.m. in the Claudia Cassidy Theater.

PostHeaderIcon Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore

FitzpatrickWhether you like artist Tony Fitzpatrick’s play, “This Train”, or not will probably depend on your reaction to the playwright/performer. I must confess that I like this artist/actor/ poet/storyteller and soft-hearted mensch. His burly physique reminds me of the gruff and gritty working-class men I grew up among in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. His art also strikes a visceral chord in my consciousness.  I’m mesmerized by his colorful collages: artwork overflowing with his personal symbology, poetic musings and memory-evoking old matchbook covers that pull me into a private, rapidly disappearing world.

For the next two weeks, Fitzpatrick has transferred his personal lamentation of a play to Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre. Like artist Julian Schnabel and designer Tom Ford who have turned to the medium of film, Fitzpatrick has laid down his pastels and taken up performance art.

While his tales are entertaining and held my interest throughout, their transfer to the stage falls short. The palpable power and coiled energy that I find in his Fitzgerald - traincollages gets diffused in the telling. Life may certainly be messy but true art is not.

While Fitzpatrick is a genuine storyteller who commands the stage, his pastiche of colorful characters and polemical rants is missing a coherent, organizing center.  Instead, Fitzpatrick’s tale meanders about the railroads’ bloody journey westward, the environmental degradation it caused, the genocide it unleashed on Native Americans and the demise of hobos who once rode the rails. His guide to the “hobo alphabet” did provide insight into symbols he employs in his art. You sense that the evening’s main theme may be the tragic loss of America’s once-bright promise.

What works best are the flashes of  nutty humor supplied by his neighbors and sidewalk hustlers as well as the musical interludes by singer/songwriter Kat Eggleston and guitarist John Rice. And Fitzpatrick’s homage to his friend and inspiration, Studs Terkel, is touching.

Fitzgerald - artFitzpatrick’s larger-than-life persona cannot be confined to a still canvas.
However, as with any good art, the material demands more defined shape and a greater edit of the extraneous than the play demonstrated. For now, my favorite Fitzpatrick remains hanging on the walls of major museums like the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“This Train” is a presentation of Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater and runs through Sunday, August 1st.  The performance was directed by Ann Filmer, artistic director of 16th Street Theater, where it first appeared. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday evenings, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $22 and can be purchased at www.steppenwolf.org or by calling 312/335-1650.

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