Don’t know about you but, if I hadn’t received a brochure in the mail last month, I wouldn’t know about an extraordinary musical event starting this week in Evanston. It’s the 9th annual Spring Festival sponsored by Northwestern University and its Bienen School of Music. I’ve seen no ads in the Tribune or The Reader. No E-mail blasts either. Yesterday, I finally heard a commercial on WFMT for a concert by one of the featured artists.
So, for all music lovers who live on Chicago’s north side, the suburbs or even southside outposts, like Hyde Park, let me say it LOUD and clear: GET THEE NORTH. Over the next two weekends, something better than NCAA March Madness is taking place in our town.
I’m referring to “Soundings”, a themed series of seven concerts featuring top-notch classical and renowned world music soloists. The series’ 11 headliners will offer unusually imaginative concerts featuring not just the standard European classical repertoire but works drawn from Indian, South American, Celtic, Zydeco and Jazz traditions.
Richard Van Kleeck, Director of Concert Activities at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, has programmed the Spring Festival since its founding in 2004. His modus operandi is to forgo simply filling open dates with a motley crew of musical artists and arrange the concerts around a central musical theme.
For the inaugural festival eight years ago, Van Kleeck’s theme was the piano. Leon Fleisher and Menahem Pressler were among the participants. For the closing concert, 33 pianists gathered on stage and played 10 Steinway Grands. Another year was devoted to string quartets, titled “Quadromania” and featured The Juilliard Quartet and Turtle Island Quartet. This Spring Festival theme this year, which opens on March 28th and runs through April 7th, is “Soundings: Celebrating Singular Voices in Music.”
The opening artist is two-time Grammy nominee, Anouska Shankar, daughter of famed sitarist, Ravi Shankar, who will play hybrid works that incorporate elements of flamenco, tango and fandango with ancient Indian musical forms. She will be followed by acclaimed pianist, Gabriela Montero, who will play “visionary interpretations” of Chopin and Liszt and devote the second half to improvisations on themes suggested by the audience.
Three noted clarinetists, all members of the Bienen School, will perform a program titled “Clarinetissimo” followed on Saturday, March 31, by famed guitarist, Sharon Isbin, joined by Brazilian percussionist, Thiago de Mello. The festival’s second week begins with violinist Jennifer Koh. For her program, “Bach and Beyond, Part I” Ms. Koh will guide audiences on a historical journey of solo violin masterpieces based on works by Bach.
On Friday, April 6th, the weekend kicks off with what promises to be a sonic showdown featuring master accordionists and bandoneon virtuosos from France, Russia, Chicago and New Orleans titled “The Big Squeeze.” The festival will conclude on April 7th as acclaimed Cuban trumpet star and four-time Grammy winner, Arturo Sandoval, performs with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra. All these “soundings” should rank as among 2012’s musical highpoints.
Van Kleeck deserves an award for such inspired programming. Why are themed programs so rare in the Chicago area? His example deserves to be copied by his peers at Harris Theater, Symphony Center, Grant Park and possibly Ravinia. Instead, we are fed an repetitious diet of one-off star turns, however noteworthy. Why not feature four or five outstanding violinists or other instrumentalists over 3 or 4 concerts around a common theme (like Koh’s “Bach and Beyond” idea) at any one or combination of the above venues? With the right marketing, it could be a crowd-pleaser that draws music regulars and new audiences locally and from out-of-town, like opera’s Ring cycle or the CSO’s Beethoven Festival in 2010. Why is such a concept being championed by a university rather than our downtown music presenters ? Classical and world music programming could stand a good jolt out of its well-worn rut.
An added feature making the festival such an attractive entertainment option is the reasonable pricing for such stellar talent. Tickets range from $14 to 26 (for Shankar and Isbin) with student seats at $10. There’s no better place or better bargain for musical enjoyment over the next 10 days than at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. To see the complete lineup and order tickets, go to www.pickstaiger.org. To buy tickets with a credit card, call 847/467-4000.