Archive for January, 2011

PostHeaderIcon While My Sitar Gently Weeps


Watching the first scene in “RAGA: A Film Journey into the Soul of India(Apple Films, 2010), one sees the Indian sitar master, Ravi Shankar, making his way through a crowd of adoring fans. It is sometime in the late ‘60s, when Eastern music was the rage in America. Shankar is smiling, clearly taken by the adulation of Hare Krishna devotees, flower children and curious, youthful bystanders. We next see him onstage, performing before a large crowd, joined by his long-time collaborator, the great Ustad Alla Rakha on tabla. These two need only a momentary glance and fleeting eye contact to produce an endless cascade of raga rhythms.

George&raviThat was to be his 15 minutes of fame in America. Yet his musical influence has endured. While he emerged in the 1950s, his fame was propelled by the interest taken by the “quiet Beatle”, George Harrison, in Indian mysticism. Harrison traveled to India to study the sitar with Shankar. As a result of that spiritual journey and musical collaboration, Harrison released the album, “All Things Must Passin 1970 which contained the songs, “My Sweet Lord” and “What is Life?.” He also produced a charity benefit with Shankar in 1971, A Concert for Bangladesh.

By 1972, the music and the counterculture moment had died, done in by drugs, the Kent State killings, the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, Middle America’s turn to the right, symbolized by the election of Richard Nixon.

raviportr1Last October, to mark Shankar’s 90th birthday year and give a new generation the chance to experience his music anew, the Ravi Shankar Foundation re-released Raga”, the 1971 documentary along with the first (1967-68) of nine CDs in a series entitled Nine Decades, featuring rare and remastered recordings

I recommend connecting with the documentary before diving into the music.  Not only will you witness him rehearsing with the remarkable violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, and the oh-so-young Harrison but it will give you a greater insight into this deeply religious man who gave up the life of a dancer, living the high life in Paris, to study for over seven years with his musical guru and dedicated his life thenceforth to music.  He toured America last year at 90 with his daughter, Anoushka.  I regret having missed his October concert at Orchestra Hall.

The film and music took me back in time. I was 25 when Shankar came on the scene. The music first struck me as foreign, like but yet quite unlike the twang of rock guitars. Through increased listening, I found the rapid string-plucking produced rich, singing tones that drew me in. As someone who practiced yoga at the time and puffed the occasional joint, this mysterious, other-worldly music fit the  alternative practices of the time. Shankar, however, didn’t approve of what he termed “the wrong approach to our music and religion, through drugs” and walked away from the fame and adulation.

Another jarring element is to see the deep poverty and squalor of India, circa 1970, at a time when today’s news is of the nation’s economic rise made possible by technology. How many will share in that good fortune? Will the great mass of the population be left behind the digital divide? Also, the film portrays a country rooted in century-old traditions and religious ceremony. Will India’s currently strong embrace of capitalism, consumption and distractions inevitably endanger its spiritual rootedness?

Ragas are the musical voice of the Indian people’s prayers. All of Shankar’s playing and raga compositions are his attempt to express the soul of Indian culture through the strings of his sitar. Ragas go much deeper than being simply sweet melodies, which is how they were treated in the West. Perhaps this time we can rediscover the true beauty of the music and the musician who remains its most renowned champion.

PostHeaderIcon Art Miles From Boul Mich

Hyde Park Smart Museum

Hyde Park Smart Museum

While the Art Institute and the MCA prepare new installations, the next month is a good time to venture off Michigan Avenue and head in new directions for one’s art fix. There are noteworthy exhibits at less prominent venues on the South Side and Evanston.

The Art Institute and MCA are the city’s marquee museums but, in past years, some of my most satisfying outings have been at art venues off-the-beaten path. I am thinking of the “1968” exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum, “Heartland” at the Smart Museum or the Jim Dine and Gordon Parks shows at



the Block Museum.

Those venues and others are listed in the Tribune, the Reader and TimeOut Chicago but so many people I meet have never strayed beyond the Magnificent Mile to those museums. Such timid behavior gives loyalty a bad name.

Chicagoans tend to be creatures of habit. They find a favorite restaurant, club, sports team or museum and stick with it for years. Loyalty is an admirable quality but not in Art. Art favors the new, the pushing past present boundaries.

The best place to view the new around town, in fact, is not museums but the galleries in River North or West Loop as well as the Hyde Park and Evanston Art Centers. Paying tribute to the valuable contributions made by Catherine Edelman, Carrie Secrist, Tom McCormick, John Corbett, Jim Dempsey and Kavi Gupta, however, is perhaps a future blog post.

Thus, here’s a selective run-down of what’s on view now at some places I visit regularly with apologies for other worthy sites I’ve left out.

Tragic Muse

Tragic Muse

Smart Museum of Art in Hyde Park has, in recent years, expanded its reach beyond the University of Chicago campus and added a more contemporary slant to its collection and programs. Opening February 10th is “The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion, 1700-1900” which explores the visual representation of tragedy over two centuries to answer how and why does art move us. Always a thought-provoking outing.

The Renaissance Society has been seeking out the new since 1915.  Over the past quarter-century, under the direction of Susanne Ghez, it has built an international reputation as a resource for, Ghez claims, “the finest vanguard art in the nation”. It has showcased artists at an early stage who have gone on to major careers. Its current exhibit features the work of video artist, Gerard Byrne. I must confess that I often leave Ren exhibitions bewildered but, most times, more knowledgeable about the issues and artistic practices of the moment.

Before heading north to Evanston, let me bestow three hearty cheers on the Chicago Cultural Center, which is a museum by any other name and consistently features outstanding exhibits. Last year’s “Jazz Loft Project”, which I wrote about for the blog, was a highlight of my 2010 museum-going.

Currently on view are newly-discovered works of an unrecognized Chicago street photographer while she was alive, Vivian Maier. And don’t miss the stunning, second floor exhibit on architect Louis Sullivan, curated by city historian Tim Samuelson and graphic designer Chris Ware. You’ll learn new things about Sullivan’s designs and his tragic final years. It’s a beautiful, loving tribute to one of Chicago and America’s master builders.

Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art is on the Northwestern campus in Evanston. Like the Smart Museum, this venue began primarily as a teaching resource students. While both museums continue that mission, the Block too has expanded to museum status and mounted high quality shows of wider appeal over the past decade.

Thomas Rowlandson

Thomas Rowlandson

The current exhibit, which just opened, examines a historical theme through the work of a Georgian-era artist. “Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England.” Rowlandson lived from 1757-1827. His masterful, detailed drawings depict the colorful and often bawdy aspects of everyday life of that era in and around London. Also, check its website for details about Block Cinema, an excellent series of classic and contemporary films.

DePaul University Museum is currently closed until September when it reopens in new, much larger, quarters. And Loyola Museum of Art (LUMA) across from Water Tower, features exhibits that explore spiritual themes. Its next exhibit, opening February 12th will highlight works by typographer and iconographer, Eric Gill.

While the current historical shows at Smart and Block are ones I normally might skip, I’ll take them in since these venues have delighted me in the past with the care and scholarship of their presentations so that I always leave pleased that I made the effort. After all, the art of the 19th and 20th centuries that I favor were built on a foundation that one needs to explore more deeply.  Give some of these current shows a try. See if they don’t provide a worthwhile afternoon of viewing far from the standard Michigan Avenue fare.

PostHeaderIcon The Russians are Coming

The Russians Are Here and More Are Coming

soviet arts exEvery new year is a time for looking ahead. Rather than write about performances after the fact, I intend to start off the year by spotlighting some noteworthy programs on the “Soviet Arts Experience” schedule that belong on your calendar. My next post will be about worthwhile exhibitions at several of Chicago’s smaller museums and galleries.

“The Soviet Arts Experience” is an ambitious showcase of more than 100 presentations at 26 venues that began last October and runs throughout the city through January 2012 by artists who created under the time of Politburo rule in the former Soviet Union. This means symphonies and chamber music by Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky but also ballet scores, wartime propaganda posters and book art. All the events and contact info are at

This past weekend, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played concerts on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon of Prokofiev’s engaging Fifth Symphony. Prokofiev is one of the four Russian composers cited above who created powerful works of the 20th Century that are destined to be musical milestones.

Serge Prokofiev

Serge Prokofiev

Yet, unlike his counterparts, the CSO devotes much less concert time to Prokofiev’s music. For a long time, the label “popular composer” dogged Prokofiev for his score of “Peter and the Wolf”. Yet his pulsating Fifth Symphony, the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” and his virtuosic Piano Concertos #1 and #3 call for a serious reappraisal and more performances by the CSO.

The last weekend this month provides two important programs. On Saturday, January 29, the University of Chicago Symphony Orchestra has programmed a fascinating concert: several of Dimitri Shostakovich’s film scores, including those for “Hamlet”, “The Gadfly” and “King Lear.” Then on Sunday, be sure to be in the audience at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall to hear the Pacifica Quartet give the third of five programs traversing Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets.  The first two programs played to full houses and rousing receptions.

When the series’ final two concerts are over in February, they will be judged as signal musical events of the new century. For those not familiar with these works, like myself, their beauty and the Pacifica’s fervent playing will come as a revelation. If you can’t snag a seat at Ganz Hall on the 30th or February 13 and 27, you can wait for the CD release on Cedille Records later this year, hop a jet to New York’s Metropolitan Museum or ride the rails to Champaign where the quartet is repeating the series.

Swan lake - russian balletTwo other dance performances that should prove mesmerizing are the visit by the State Ballet Theatre of Russia at Auditorium Theatre on February 4 and 5 performing “Swan Lake” and the Eifman Ballet of  St. Petersburg doing Eifman’s version of “Don Quixote or Fantasies of a Madman” in April. Each company gives only three performances of these works. So, be alert so as not to miss them.

Golosa Choir

Golosa Choir

Just the thought of hearing the Golosa Russian Choir singing traditional Russian vocal music in the reverberant confines of Rockefeller Chapel gives me goose bumps. Clear your calendar to be in Hyde Park on Sunday April 3 at 11 a.m.

Not to be overlooked, three of Chicago’s art venues get into the act over the Summer and Fall with a series of exhibits highlighting Soviet posters, experimental propaganda images and book art.

The Art Institute kicks off the visual extravaganza on July 30 with a never-before-seen show of giant, strikingly designed World War II posters followed on August 30 with a show at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art that features the artistic process behind the creation of iconic Soviet propaganda imagery of the 1920s and 1930s.

Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art has two shows opening next Fall. One shows 160 post-Cold War political posters, cartoons, postcards and photomontages. The second is an examination of Soviet Book Art during the period 1910-17 by avant-garde artists entitled “Tango with Cows.”

There are many more riches impossible to include. Performances of Russian music by the CSO and Riccardo Muti, pianist EvgenyKissin and violist Yuri Bashmet in a joint recital, cellists Yo Yo Ma and Alisa Weilerstein. These artists’ appearances will be strongly marketed. I want to draw your attention to smaller, non-blockbuster events that may not be on your radar and may prove more satisfying.

The political Cold War is over. The Soviet Arts Experience seeks to smash a less conscious cultural “cold war” and expose us to a wider and deeper appreciation of works by Soviet artists in multiple mediums.  Bravo!

PostHeaderIcon Good to Be Back!

welcome backI apologize to readers for the non-appearance of new weekly posts over the past two months.  However, as the blog’s founder and only contributor, I was drawn away on a lucrative assignment impossible to refuse. I hope you will now resume visiting the site regularly. With a backlog of ideas that piled up in my absence, I intend to post more than the usual single story each week for the rest of this month.  Thanks for staying the course! Let’s continue to enjoy culture together.

Wishing you all the very best in 2011!