Archive for February, 2011

PostHeaderIcon New Music Cracks The Ice

Over the last decade, musical organizations have gone public with their concern at the absence of the under-30 generation in the audience for classical concerts. Orchestras and conductors around the country blamed the lack of music education in school while critics retorted that orchestras had priced young people out of their halls and were acting more like museums, endlessly curating the same canonical works from the 18th and 19th centuries while turning their backs on music of our time.

Tim Munro & Eighth BackbirdWell, the musical ice has cracked in Chicago and the new music scene has “really exploded”, according to Tim Munro, flutist with Eighth Blackbird, a leading contemporary ensemble.  The prime movers and shakers are the city’s chamber music ensembles, though the mighty Chicago Symphony joined the movement in 1998 with its MusicNow series and the appointment of two young, edgy composers-in-residence, Anna Clyne and occasional hip-hop DJ Masonic, Mason Bates.

A seminal event for this development was the creation in 2004 of New Music Chicago, an association of five founding members—Eighth Blackbird, ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), Cube, ACM (Access Contemporary Music) and Maverick—that has grown to 20 members. Tribute must be paid to the vanguard Contemporary Chamber Players (now Contempo), headed by composer Ralph Shapey who paved the way in 1964. The group is now headed by composer Shulamit Ran.

Chicago, in fact, is the most active city for new music activity in the country. Teddy Dean Boys, a local consultant to non-profit organizations, says that he heard Bates and Clyne, at a luncheon last week, claim that Chicago is an even more lively center for new music than London, San Francisco and New York.

Seth Boustead

Seth Boustead

Munro, ACM’s founder, Seth Boustead, and Boys revealed a number of reasons for this musical flourishing.  They noted that New Music Chicago has proven to be a unifying force supportive of each ensemble’s work rather than in competition; there is no comparable organization in New York or San Francisco. Boys seconds this idea, stating that Chicago is “a great nurturing place” with “risk-taking audiences”, factors that allow performers to develop at their own pace, with less fear of failure than exist elsewhere.

Young people like to flock to venues that have a “cool vibe.” So, new music ensembles have ventured out of their academic homes to play at The Hideout, Heaven Gallery, Hungry Brain, Chopin Theater and even the Green Mill Tavern. Both Boys and Boustead say that the new music scene is reminiscent of the excitement surrounding Chicago Theater in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Boustead noted that Dal Niente, Fulcrum Point and ICE are groups with a very clear mission who “talk like people in their 30s” that bonds with younger audiences. A number of new groups are crossing over to incorporate indie rock influences in their performances, says Munro.

Munro claims that engaged, young audiences flock to Eighth Blackbird concerts because the group “try to create a different performance aesthetic. We try to find ways of emotionally engaging an audience.” He says they employ elements other than an audiences’ ears—movies for example—to grab attention.

Finally, what makes Chicago so lively is the absence of a single major presenter, the proverbial 800-pound gorilla that monopolizes the audience’s attention, like the Chicago Symphony does for orchestral music.

If you remain in the dark about new music, I’d urge you to catch a performance by Eighth Blackbird, Pacifica Quartet, ICE or any of the ensembles in this report. This Saturday, Eighth Blackbird is at the Museum of Contemporary Art playing Steve Reich’s masterwork, “Music for 18 Musicians” in honor of his 75th birthday. The first show is sold out but a second show has been added at 10 p.m.

Eighth is curating the “Tune-In Festival” in New York from February 16 – 20 in a really alternative venue, the cavernous Park Avenue Armory.  The festival consists of 4 concerts over 5 days. Eighth is performing in all the festival concerts apart from the February 16 opening; only one features them in their normal sextet configuration. A highlight will be the premiere of John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” which features 72 percussionists performing as they move around the armory. For more information, go to

Here at home, mark March 30 on your calendar to take in Access Contemporary Music’s annual “Sound of Silent Film Festival.”  It’s the only film festival that features modern silent films by directors like Martin Scorsese and Gus van Sant screened to live music composed specifically for each film. It is both fun and engaging. The festival runs from March 30 to April 2 at the Chopin Theater. For more information, go to

PostHeaderIcon “First Great American Opera”

fanciulla_del_west_film_poster_by_spellaniThat’s what conductor Steven Mercurio called Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) in a recent issue of Opera News. Puccini composed the score to the play of the same name by American playwright, David Belasco.

The opera, which remains relatively unheralded compared to Puccini’s other scores—“Tosca,” “La Boheme” and “Madame Butterfly”—is being feted this season on the 100th Anniversary of its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Puccini attended the premiere and heard Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn in the leading roles with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Puccini considered it his best score.

Since its premiere, where it received a tumultuous 14 curtain calls, the opera has had a spotty history. Lyric has not performed “La Fanciulla” since 1990. Why? The opera has a winning story of personal redemption and beautiful melodies, good enough for Andrew Lloyd Weber to poach for the signature song to his “Phantom” musical, “Magic of the Night.” One reason may be that few sopranos can or want to tackle the fearsome vocal and dramatic demands of the score.

Deborah Voigt at The Met

Deborah Voigt at The Met

In honor of the centennial, America’s two leading opera houses  mounted different productions. Rarer still, I was able to see the Met and Lyric Opera productions only weeks apart with the same two leads, soprano Deborah Voigt as Minnie and tenor Marcello Giordani as the bandit, Ramerrez, aka Dick Johnson.

The opera is set in a California mining town at the time of the Gold Rush (1849). Minnie is the good-hearted proprietor of The Polka Inn, a saloon frequented by the men who’ve left their homes and families to come West and find their fortune. Jack Rance, the town’s sheriff, lusts after Minnie but she gives her heart, unknowingly, to the Mexican bandit, Ramerrez, who comes to town masquerading as “Johnson from Sacramento.” The opera’s action revolves around Minnie and Johnson’s growing love affair, Rance’s suspicions and the discovery of Johnson’s true identity.

I’ll compare the two viewings by commenting on various aspects of the productions and deliver a sports page-like ranking.

VIEWINGI saw the Met production in a local movie theater on a live HD transmission. The vivid picture quality impressed me more than I expected and the close-ups of the singers added extra immediacy to my enjoyment. At Lyric, I sat in a sixth row seat, which conveyed the same close-up immediacy with the advantage of being in the house, hearing a live performance. Advantage—A Tie. (“Superb Viewing in Both Productions. However, live performance and seat location favor Lyric but the Met wins if one is seated in rear orchestra or upper balcony).

STAGINGBoth Giancarlo del Monaco’s Met production and Lyric’s  by theater director, Harold Prince, told the tale by focusing on the miners and not a John Ford cowboy western with blazing guns and 10-gallon hats (Lyric’s Jack Rance hardly wore his hat, preferring to hold it in his hand by his side, an odd and distracting choice for a sheriff).

The major differences were in the set, costumes and lighting design. The Met used nearly the entire stage to depict the interior of The Polka Inn while Lyric’s smaller set was centered in the middle of the stage and showed the inn’s exterior as the opening curtain rose while the remaining half showing the rocky landscape.

Set DesignWhen Lyric’s set opened, the Polka Inn had a cramped feeling that proved too small for all the miners onstage. The saloon’s smaller set proved a greater disadvantage in the second act, when only half the set had to serve as the entirety of Minnie’s cabin. The Met’s cabin, meanwhile, was twice as large and more appropriate for all the props and action that take place during the act. Advantage—The Met

Costumes revealed another major difference. The Met production had the miners in more authentic western garb with checked shirts, bandanas and vests. At Lyric, while the miners sported appropriate garb, it was strange to see the bandit Ramerrez and sheriff Jack Rance clothed in knee-length overcoats, outfits more appropriate for landed gentry than cowboys. Advantage—The Met

Finally, the lighting design at Lyric was dark and much too somber compared to the Met’s brighter palette. It was nearly impossible to make out the miners at the opening curtain entering from Stage Right or to see Ramerrez flee outdoors in the second act to avoid capture.  Both the Met and Lyric productions featured the majestic Sierra Mountains in the background; the Met, however, effectively spotlit the snowy peaks in the second act onward while they remained in darkness at Lyric until the last act. For a story in which nature and the harsh landscape are a key backdrop and in which the Sierras cover the entire rear of Lyric’s stage, it seemed the lighting was not used to best effect. Advantage—The Met


Marcello Giordani & Deborah Voigt at Lyric

SingersThough music lovers and critics care most about this category, I placed it last because Deborah Voight and Marcello Giordani were in fine voice and delivered winning dramatic portrayals in both productions. However, in supporting roles, I preferred Lyric’s casting of Jack Rance and Jake Wallace. Marco Vratogna’s dark, baritone delivery was slightly better than that of Lucio Gallo in New York. And Paul Corona at Lyric gave a more ardent rendition of Jake Wallace’s nostalgic song of home. Advantage—Lyric

And give Lyric another point for Minnie’s show-stopping rescue of Ramerrez from the gallows. While she simply came running in at The Met, she enters atop an old-fashioned hand-pump railcar at Lyric and, with a single shot, severs the hanging rope in two, a feat that drew a gasp from the audience.

While I have been more critical of Lyric’s production, it has been in the supporting categories. I’ve had no qualms about the glorious singing, staging or the score. So, I’d urge that you don’t miss discovering the joy of this neglected Puccini score. Six more performances remain through February 21. For tickets, go to

The next Met Live HD production, John Adams’ “Nixon in China”, will be telecast on Saturday, February 12. For details and ticket sales, go to