Archive for February, 2012

PostHeaderIcon Climbing a Musical Mountain

Chicago Chorale

Chicago Chorale

I last wrote about the virtues of the fine, Hyde Park-based, Chicago Chorale two years ago. Since then, I have had the pleasure of hearing them in concert several times and on two CD recordings, Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” and their 10th Anniversary release, “And Give Us Peace”. What I find so appealing about this all-volunteer ensemble of 60 trained singers, beyond their stellar musicianship, is their drive to take on ever-greater challenges.

Their upcoming concert, next Monday evening at Symphony Center, is a perfect example of this choral group’s chutzpah. Conductor Bruce Tammen’s forces will join with the Oak Park-River Forest Symphony and Chorus under Jay Friedman’s direction to perform Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”.

Everything about the production is big. Instead of performing the work in their usual church setting, the Chorale is moving downtown to the home of the Chicago Symphony, which has scheduled the same work for next October. The Chorale, for this performance, has augmented its ranks with 26 additional singers and will be joined by 42 choristers from Oak Park for a massing of 128 voices filling the hall.

Due to the difficulty of the scoring, the Missa is usually performed strictly by professional symphony orchestras with easier access to choral forces, and even then, not often. Thus, one can only admire the artistic challenge Tammen and Friedman have assumed.

Beetoven

Beethoven

Beethoven drew inspiration for his Mass from the examples of Handel and Bach. The audience will hear distinct Handel-like sonorities in the score as well as what Tammen calls two “fiendishly difficult” fugues and contrapuntal scoring modeled on Bach’s “B Minor Mass.”  Along with Bach’s Mass, the Missa is a supreme musical example of a Mass setting.

Beethoven composed the Missa between 1819-23, during the time he was working on his monumental Ninth Symphony. It began as a commission for the Archduke Rudolph of Austria’s inauguration but was not completed by the 1820 date.

Tammen believes the composer needed to write a mass to top other masses. “One can’t overstate the ego-gratification needs of Beethoven.” Beethoven even set the Ninth aside to work on the score he called his greatest work.

Tammen feels that, were the Missa Solemnis better known, it would be an audience favorite and a Beethoven masterwork, equal to the symphonies. I will be in the audience hearing the work for the first time and listening for the great fugues at the end of the Gloria and Credo as well as the Agnus Dei.

Bruce Tammen

Bruce Tammen

When asked for personal highpoints of his leadership, Tammen cites the Chorale’s performances at the acoustically-stunning Monastery of the Holy Cross in Bridgeport, their appearances at the Ravinia Festival and a highly successful tour of France and Spain last summer.

Besides buying tickets to what, based on my past experience, should be a glorious musical evening, I urge you to visit the Chorale’s attractive, content-rich website at www.chicagochorale.org where you can download a study guide for the concert, watch a video about the upcoming performance and click on an Missa audio guide, “Top Ten Moments to Listen For”.

On the company’s 12th season schedule are performances of Bach’s “St. John Passion” and a concert at the Monastery.  Off in the future lies Haydn’s “Creation,” Brahms’ “German Requiem” and a possible return to Ravinia.  That’s Tammen and the Chorale dreaming bigger dreams.

The Missa Solemnis performance is at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 5 with a pre-concert introduction by WFMT’s Carl Grapentine at 6:30 p.m. Ticket sales are being handled by Symphony Center’s box office at 312/294-3000 or www.cso.org.

PostHeaderIcon Chicago’s New Art Museum

DeOaul Art Mueseum

DePaul Art Museum

There’s a new museum in town. Yet I’m not sure how many Chicagoans know the good news. The DePaul Art Museum opened last September in a new, three-story structure adjoining the Fullerton CTA stop.

The museum is only new in a technical sense. Since 1998, it has been housed in two large rooms within Richardson Library, unknown to outside passersby. Louise Lincoln, its highly capable director since 1997, has mounted numerous noteworthy exhibitions under serious limitations.

Though art has been present on campus from 1985, it was hidden in the literal sense. What the striking red brick building achieves is a freestanding space for the museum’s art collection (2,000 objects with extensive holdings of Chicago art) with the size (15,000 sq. ft.) and facilities (a new collection study room) befitting a true museum. It also signifies the university’s growing commitment to the arts.

A tip of the hat is warranted for the contextually-rich design by Antunovich Associates, their first museum project.

My earlier post focused on Chicago’s formerly feisty publication, The New Art Examiner, and its dedicated focus on Chicago and the greater Midwest art community. Lincoln and assistant director, Laura Fatemi, opted for an equally strong local focus and provocative theme for their opening show

Re: Chicago opens with a wall text that states, “Chicago rivals—and surpasses—other cities in music, architecture and theater; yet in the visual arts, it has too frequently been seen as a ‘second city’.”  Though many prominent artists, past and present, sport Chicago connections, many left and made their reputations elsewhere.

The exhibit seeks to reframe Chicago as a true artistic center vis-a-vis other centers such as Paris, New York and even Los Angeles. Alongside the Chicago theme, Lincoln chose a novel way to showcase the chosen works: a group-curated show. She polled 43 curators, collectors, critics and scholars to name a favorite Chicago artist. The result is an alternate canon of the famous, the no longer famous and the ought to be famous.

Ivan Albright

Ivan Albright

The show is both a delight to walk through and an entertaining guessing game. New discoveries loom at each hang while one wonders what did James Elkins, Neil Harris, Lew Manilow and James Rondeau choose? For every known artist like Ivan Albright, Karl Wirsum, Dawoud Bey and Richard Hunt, there was the thrill of discovering Manierre Dawson, Art Shay, Macena Barton, Irving Petlin and many more. Most surprising was Franz Schulze’s backward reach into the mid-19th Century for now-forgotten portraitist, George Healy, along with the absence of Ed Paschke, Roger Brown or Jim Nutt.

Manierre Dawson

Manierre Dawson

You’ll want to take home the show’s colorful, attractively-designed catalog to reread not only each curator’s supporting statement but for the scholarly essays buttressing Chicago’s claim for its rightful place in the art world.

Wendy Greenhouse skillfully argues that Chicago’s art tradition has run counter to the prevailing canon throughout history. Its artists have long favored representational or surreal (“cartoonish”) work over an East Coast canon dominated by abstract, expressionistic art.

Karl Wirsum

Karl Wirsum

Lynne Warren champions Chicago’s “extraordinary photographic legacy” and bemoans the near-criminal neglect of such masters as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind and other renowned figures.

If you are an art lover, you owe it to yourself to get to the DePaul Art Museum by March 4 to catch this appealing yet ultimately serious show. The museum’s next exhibition will feature African photographer, Malick Sidibe. It opens March 29.

DePaul Art Museum is located at 935 West Fullerton Avenue. For information on public events and hours, call 773/325-7506 or visit www.depaul.edu/museum.

PostHeaderIcon Independent Art Voice Revived

Derek Guthrie

Derek Guthrie

It has been 10 years since The New Art Examiner published its final issue. The monthly magazine, which called itself “Chicago’s Independent Voice of the Visual Arts,” enjoyed a rough but highly-respected run from 1973 to 2002. It was born in controversy by founding editors, Jane Addams Allen and Derek Guthrie. Besides coverage of local and regional exhibits, the publication adopted a reportorial, contrarian stance toward the value systems and practices of the art world that raised a lot of critical dust.

Under the helm of successive editors, it gained a large following among artists, a national readership and critical influence beyond the Midwest. It was disheartening to hear at a panel discussion last November that the history and contribution of Chicago’s only successful art magazine was virtually unknown among younger critics and art students.

Authors Terri Griffith, Kathryn Born and Janet Koplos have now stepped into the breach and assembled an enlightening anthology of articles in “The Essential New Art Examiner,” newly-published by Northern Illinois University Press. In so doing, they have resurrected this ever-lively publication and shown what was lost with its passing.

Griffith, at an all-day symposium (“Re-Examining the New Art Examiner”) last Saturday at Northern Illinois’ campus, called the Examiner “a newspaper for artists” to which each editor, over its 30-year run, brought their own views and interests. These new voices, who shared the founding editors’ commitment to an independent local outlet, not only kept the Examiner alive once Allen and Guthrie relocated to Washington, D. C. but also helped establish Chicago’s growing national recognition as a true art center.

The New Art Examiner published my first forays in art reportage. A cover story on an infamous trial of the 1980s involving the George F. Harding Museum earned me my first Examiner byline. Following that scandal, I next investigated the nationwide lack of defined ethical guidelines at major art museums.

While most institutions now have written guidelines governing staff, trustee and curatorial conduct, ethical issues around collection management still arouse controversy 30 years later.

While I hung around the Examiner’s office mainly from 1980-82, Guthrie’s introduction to the book, along with his and Jane Allen’s opening essay and Frank Pannier passionate rant opened my eyes to Chicago’s art world circa 1973.

Essential New Art Examiner

Essential New Art Examiner

Besides giving young art writers their first exposure in print, the book contains many thoughtful essays that still resonate by prominent critics and curators: Peter Schjeldahl (now at The New Yorker), Hilton Kramer (The New Criterion), Janet Koplos (Art in America), Alice Thorsen (now at Kansas City Star), Lynne Warren (MCA) and Hamza Walker (Renaissance Society). Schjeldahl’s 1985 “Chicagoization” article is a classic. The historical recaps by five former editors are a nice personal touch. Only a handful of the 27 selections were duds.

While the book does not pretend to be a complete history, which remains to be written, it is an essential primer to a colorful and contentious period in Chicago art lost to generations who came after. (NIU art historian, Barbara Jaffee, has written a highly perceptive analysis of the Examiner’s origins and history. For a copy of her catalog essay that accompanied NIU Museum’s exhibition on the New Art Examiner, write bjaffee@niu.edu.)

Unfortunately, the New Art Examiner was never supported with advertising by most dealers or, especially, the city’s two major museums. Book artist, Buzz Spector, called the New Art Examiner “the chronic outsider of the art world.” An early director at the Museum of Contemporary Art banned the magazine from the museum’s gift shop.

Guthrie writes that he and Jane Allen “learned by bitter experience that there is no freedom for criticism or criticality.” Dealers at the time failed to see any reason to support a publication with an independent voice that could not be controlled.

Former NY Times reporter, Judith Dobrzynski, in her recent blog on ArtsJournal confirms that Guthrie’s complaint lives on today. She asked, “Does the visual arts world need sharper criticism? Yes….When was the last time you read a learned, thoughtful, well-argued critique of a museum or gallery exhibition that was negative?”

One would like to think that Chicago’s frosty reception toward the Examiner is a thing of the past. However, the more recent demise of Chicago Artist News in 2010 is a fresh reminder bespeaking a pattern of poor institutional support.

While blogs proliferate online, none carry the critical authority and agenda-setting power of a print publication like ArtNews or Artforum. So long as Chicago’s art community fails to support its own artists with its own editorial outlet, New York will monopolize the national art dialogue. Chicago will continue to make do with periodic scraps and its art community will remain a provincial center.

The Essential New Art Examiner is now in bookstores or from the publisher at www.niupress.niu.edu

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