Archive for the ‘Music – Contemporary’ Category

PostHeaderIcon “Yardbird” Soars High

It’s ironic that the story of jazz  bebop pioneer, Charlie Parker, should be presented by Lyric Opera. Yet, it seems fitting in another respect. Parker, an icon of jazz’s hipster subculture and later the Beat Generation, was also a keen fan of classical music. He wanted to incorporate jazz with classical elements and recorded an album of ballads with a string section in 1949 for producer, Norman Granz.

Last week, Lyric mounted Parker’s story as a chamber opera at the Harris Theater with a highly appealing score by composer Daniel Schnyder and a compelling libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly.  Although a learned man, he hadn’t had time to write an autobiography or little else about his life. Parker died at the age of only 34.

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

Brownlee as Parker and Angela Brown as Addie.l  Photo by Todd Rosenberg


Wimberly situates the opera in Birdland, the New York nightclub named in Parker’s honor. He played his final gig there on March 4th, 1955, eight days before he died. The opera imagines Parker returning to the club after his death while his body lies unidentified in New York’s Bellevue morgue. He wants to compose the masterpiece he was unable to write during his lifetime before the news of his death goes public.  Yet, people and demons from his past–particularly alcohol and heroin–keep intruding.

Prior to the performance, I had little inkling of how much Parker had suffered in his life beyond his drug addictions. The libretto gave me a fuller picture of this troubled genius’ struggles: with his two wives, the death of his young daughter, Pree, and his commitment for six months to a mental hospital in California.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee delivered a magnificent vocal and dramatic portrayal, capturing both his genius and torment. He was supported by a cast of outstanding singers in every role, especially Addie, his mother, sung by Angela Brown and Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, his patron and lover, sung by Julie Miller. Will Liverman, as Dizzy Gillespie, Parker’s fellow bebop pioneer, is accomplished in his relatively small role. At one point, Gillespie sings, “Come on, Yard! Let’s get out of here! We still have to write that music down”. Unfortunately, those scores never got written.

I have two fairly significant caveats about the score. By having the singers deliver their lines in recitative mode, the modern wont, the score keeps the dramatic action trapped at ground level, unable to soar to the lyrical heights reached by Parker’s horn. I also found it frustrating that Brownlee kept carrying his saxophone case around throughout the opera but never once do we hear a solo by the band’s alto saxophonist to recreate a taste of Parker’s genius. There was a fine set after the performance of Parker’s music by Orbert Davis’ Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra but it seemed a little too late. Many in the audience had left by then.

Lyric Unlimited is the company’s bold initiative to expand opera’s reach into new audiences and musical arenas. “Yardbird” is the fifth in the Unlimited series and, while I haven’t seen any of the earlier ones, I’d say “Yardbird” could easily be the most successful to date. Credit must go to Lyric’s General Director and CEO, Anthony Freud, for his out-of-the-box experiment. Let’s have more!




PostHeaderIcon Weilerstein & Alsop: A Winning Musical Team at Grant Park

Grant Park Music Festival’s summer season has passed the midway point with just three more weeks remaining after this weekend. Fans should make plans to catch the festival’s delightful blend of music and lawn picnicking before it ends on August 20. If you haven’t been to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park up to now, you missed memorable performances of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, a thrilling tribute to Cole Porter and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (“Romantic”).

Millenium ParkThe concert on Wednesday, July 20th, was totally engaging, though I was more moved by the opening segment featuring virtuoso cellist, Alisa Weilerstein. She played Osvaldo Golijov‘s composition “Azul” (in a version that the composer revised especially for her) with her usual passionate intensity and rich tone.

In introductory comments, Golijov characterized the piece as “a journey among the stars” with the orchestral sounds representing the music of the spheres. The sounds veers from an almost trance-like state in the “Silencio” movement to sounds of shattering discord. “Azul” combined elements of world music with a tabla-sounding Indian melody  supplied by percussionists Cyro Baptista and Jamey Haddad. Conductor Marin Alsop provided excellent orchestral accompaniment.

Marin Alsop

Marin Alsop

The second half featured an imaginative programming touch. A 30-minute slide show of stunning nature images, shot by Frans Lanting, titled “Life: A Journey Through Time”, was paired with an original score by Philip Glass. The images were breath-taking but Glass’ piece sounded generic to my ears and like other scores by him. I found an earlier mix of sights and sound several years back that featured astounding NASA images, paired with Holst’s “The Planets”, a more successful pairing.

Some highlights of the musical treats remaining on the calendar include piano virtuoso Stephen Hough playing “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” (August 3), Mozart’s Mass in C Minor along with the world premiere of Michael Gondolfi’s “The Cosmic Garden in Bloom” (August   5 & 6), a “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” weekend featuring the beloved “Piano Concerto No. 1” (August 12 & 13) and Berlioz’s choral masterpiece, “The Damnation of Faust” (August 19 & 20).

For yet another season, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Carlos Kalmar, has given Chicago listeners a rich assortment of musical staples, world premieres and multimedia surprises like Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” and the Glass/Lanting “LIFE” program.



PostHeaderIcon Tasty Musical Treats Times Two

At the beginning of this month, I urged you to put the upcoming European Film Festival on your calendar. Today, I’m alerting you to two April music festivals. They should but may not get much mainstream coverage. If you like alternative, creative music programming, these two festivals are definitely worth your attention–and attendance. And don’t overlook Fulcrum Point’s newest offering.

Todd Rudington with Ethel

Todd Rundgren with Ethel

Two words–Collaboration and Convergence–define the themes for two upcoming, highly promising music festivals. The 9th annual Spring Festival presented by Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music will run from Tuesday, April 2 through Saturday, April 13. Its 7-concert schedule, titled “Side by Side“, kicks off with a collaboration between the ebullient string Quartet, Ethel, appearing with rock musician Todd Rundgren.

The next evening features award-winning jazz vocalist, Kurt Elling, teaming with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra to celebrate the songbook of Cole Porter. Then, classical guitarist Jason Vieaux matched with accordion and bandoneon virtuoso, Julien Labro. The closing weekend features the Asphalt Orchestra, a unique, cutting-edge, 12-piece marching band of top musicians on Friday, April 12 and guitar virtuosos,  Sergio and Odair Assar, along with jazz reed giant, Paquito D’Rivera, on Saturday. For the full schedule and additional artist information, go to

Asphalt Orchestra

Asphalt Orchestra

The man responsible for all this musical alchemy is Richard Van Kleeck, director of concert activities at the Bienen School. He is responsible for programming 250 concerts a year on campus which includes 100 student recitals and performances by 20 performing ensembles. The Spring Festival follows on the heels of a John Cage festival last fall. For the festival’s kickoff in 2005, Van Kleeck had 10 Steinway Grand Pianos on stage with a bevy of  distinguished pianists, including Leon Fleisher and Marcus Roberts, performing.

Van Kleeck’s view of collaboration is that 1+1 is greater than 2. He says pairing artists in collaboration is “just like a chemical experiment where something special goes on.” To be part of hearing something special, go to to download a full festival schedule.

CIMMfest 2013 stands for the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival. If you haven’t heard of it until now, neither have many other Chicagoans. Though it’s celebrating its 5th anniversary, it’s still under the radar though not amongst local indie musicians. It’s a festival with a relatively miniscule budget but with large ambitions matched by the lollapalooza determination of its two founders. It literally gets the job done with a lot of help from its friends, a coalition of 50 trade, media and college partners. That high level of convergence could make 2013 CIMMfest’s breakout moment.

CIMMfest rolls out over four days, April 18-21, with an incredible 99 events spread over 15 different venues. Now that SXSW has ended, the action moves to Chicago. I spoke with co-founder, Josh Chicoine, last week. Chicoine, a talented musician whose band once opened for Wilco and The New Pornographers, joined forces with documentary filmmaker and visionary, Ilko Davidov, in 2009.

The fest’s overriding mission is to spotlight music-centric films. This year, Chicoine says they are “dialing it way up” in terms of activity. They will screen 70 films from 25 countries and showcase more than 50 musical acts around town. Eleven music films will be world premieres! There’s no way you can avoid CIMMfest this year.

Funky Meters

Funky Meters

Opening night features music, film and conversation with composer, producer and performer Van Dyke Parks. The next night is a must-see, a monster mash at the Congress Theater with headliners, the Funky Meters from Louisiana, local band, J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound plus the funk, jazz and boogaloo sounds of The Greyboy Allstars. The live show also includes a “Music in Movies” panel discussion. Its scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. or later. Another highlight of the long weekend are 10 films documenting 50 Years of the Rolling Stones.

Melvin Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peebles

On Saturday evening, CIMMfest will present its inaugural lifetime achievement award to filmmaker, actor, director and Chicago native, Melvin Van Peebles, most noted for his 1960s film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” The 80-year old artist will then perform with his band, Laxative. That has the makings of a truly wild event.

I’ve not made it to prior festivals but I plan to get onboard this year. Listen to what one of CIMMfest’s many musical fans, Louis Black, co-founder of the South by Southwest Festival, has to say. “CIMMfest has been really wonderful. It reminds me of what SXSW was when we were starting it. It has the same intensity and intention and it cares about music and movies.”



Tickets are only $10 for the films and an incredible $25 for the live shows. The April 19th show is a special limited sale online so buy your tickets in advance.  Besides individual sales, CIMMfest offers a 4-day Fest Pass for $79, less than the cost of a one-day pass to Lollapalooza. Check out the full schedule lineup at

Footnote: If you are looking for still more music after CIMMfest, I’d recommend you catch the ever-inventive, top-flight new music ensemble, Fulcrum Point, at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance on Tuesday, April 23rd. Music Director  Stephen Burns has once again devised a special program. He will lead a 100-member orchestra in the complete film score to the accompanying screening of Ken Russell’s 1980 sci-fi classic, “Altered States.” The film was scored by noted composer, John Corigliano, and received a Best Original Score Academy Award nomination that year. Fulcrum Point’s performance is part of the citywide celebration honoring the composer’s 75th birthday.

PostHeaderIcon A Trio On the Verge

Lincoln Trio

Lincoln Trio

I first encountered The Lincoln Trio slightly more than three years ago. They were about to embark on a months-long concert tour of Illinois towns, presented by the Ravinia Music Festival, marking the Bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Their playing made a positive first impression which was strengthened a few months later at a Music in the Loft concert. They matched flawless ensemble playing with impressive, unified sound and  an intensity of attack that was palpable. Their obvious talent, combined with youth and photogenic appeal, made for a winning combination.

David Cunliffe

The trio (Desiree Ruhstrat, violin, David Cunliffe, cello and Marta Aznavoorian, piano), formed in 2003, was at the time still in a formative stage of their musical life. I wondered would they be able to assemble all the many elements involved in rising above the crowded musical pack to fashion a successful career. Today, at the end of their 10th season performing together, they appear poised to reap the reward for their critical accolades and break through to wider public acclaim.

Most music fans have no idea of the labyrinth aspiring musicians must navigate to enjoy a top-flight career.  Talent is merely the first requirement. To that base must be added rock-solid dedication, strong training pedigree, professional management, recordings, touring, impressive reviews, helpful sponsors, usually a connection with a music conservatory and lots of luck! Lack several of those critical elements and your ensemble will remain stuck on the middle rungs of the career ladder. Let’s look at the road The Lincoln Trio has followed in pursuit of its dream.

One year after coming together, the trio was invited to become the resident ensemble at the Music Institute of Chicago, replacing the Pacifica Quartet, who have gone on to greater success. Their first big break was a debut at Fredda Hyman’s Music in the Loft series in 2006. Fredda became one of their important champions. The trio also met Jim Ginsburg, head of Cedille Records, at the loft which led to the first of four recordings for the label.

Marta Aznavoorian

Marta Aznavoorian

In 2008, a casual dinner party conversation Desiree had with Welz Kauffman, head of the Ravinia Festival, resulted in their Lincoln Bicentennial tour which kicked off in Springfield on the day Barack Obama officially announced his candidacy for President. Ravinia also helped them find  professional management. That same year, the trio were winners at the Masterplayers International Competition in Venice, Italy.

Having management raised their concert appearances and led to recitals on many chamber music series in Texas, Vermont, California, Indianapolis and overseas in Germany and Colombia, South America.

Each month of 2011 seemed filled with important musical milestones. They performed in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall in January, followed by a Music in the Loft concert. In March, they toured Singapore, Hong Kong and Vietnam on behalf of Ravinia. June brought an important breakthrough, their Ravinia recital debut.

In the Fall, they performed locally at the Arts Club and at Le Poussin Rouge, an arts cabaret in New York’s Greenwich Village, toured California and played again at MITL. They also released their new Cedille recording, “Notable Women,” the first in which they were the sole headliners. The release featured six works-four world premieres-by noted contemporary women composers such as Stacy Garrop, Augusta Read Thomas and Joan Tower. It received a Grammy Award nomination.

It also helps to have the local classical radio station as a supporter.  The trio has appeared numerous times on WFMT including its Impromptu program, the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert series and last December’s “Day of Music” marking the station’s 60th anniversary.

Such a record of relentless activity, personal drive and critical acclaim is what gives an ensemble its necessary momentum and wider recognition. You can see them in recital next Friday evening, August 24th, at Ravinia’s Bennett-Gordon Hall.  The program includes Brahms’ Trio No. 2 and two premieres–the world premiere of Chicago composer Mischa Zupko’s Piano Quartet and the Chicago premiere of Anton Arensky’s Piano Quintet. Tickets are only $10 and can be ordered online at I urge you to go and judge for yourself.


Desiree Ruhstrat

The trio is known for adventurous programming, mixing contemporary repertoire with classic selections. “We feel the ideal program is to combine something new with traditional composers, thereby giving it a new twist,” says trio member Desiree Ruhstrat. The ensemble has just been awarded a $15,000 grant by Chamber Music America to commission a new work.

On the horizon for 2013 are release in January of “Annelies,” a score for chorus, soprano and chamber ensemble, based on the literary classic, “Diary of Anne Frank.” The Naxos recording features The Lincoln Trio along with soprano, Arianna Zukerman (daughter of violinist Pinchas Zukerman) and the Westminster Williamson Voices. That will be followed by an appearance with Chicago Chamber Musicians that also features the Chicago Children’s Choir and a new, yet unannounced, recording project for Cedille.

This five-year whirlwind of activity and accomplishment makes me confident that the trio is close to climbing more musical rungs toward new heights. If so, I will feel a sense of vicarious pleasure and be able to claim, “I knew them when.”

PostHeaderIcon SFO Salutes Ten “American Mavericks”

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas has always had a special affinity for the music of American composers. The Los Angeles-born  music director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, he has championed those pioneers  who, according to an SFO website, “created a new American musical voice for the 20th Century.” In 2000, Thomas organized the first “American Mavericks” festival devoted to such seminal figures as Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, John Cage and Charles Ives. This month, he is touring the next iteration of “American Mavericks” in Chicago, Ann Arbor and New York City.

Charles Ives

Charles Ives

I was in the Orchestra Hall audience ten days ago for several reasons. Foremost was to hear the orchestra in its first Chicago appearance in 10 years. I heard them once before under the leadership of Herbert Blomstedt but wanted to hear their playing  under Thomas’ direction. They performed brilliantly, playing with total commitment and keen attack, signs of an improved ensemble relishing the chance to play such challenging fare. Another reason was to hear the works on the program (Cowell, John Adams & Ives). Apart from Adams, the other mavericks are rarely heard inside Symphony Center. Finally, I wanted to see if my musical ears had grown more accustomed to Ives’ spiky, contrapuntal tonal palette. Thomas is widely viewed as the premier interpreter of Ives.

The program opened with a haunting, soaring trumpet solo from Cowell’s “Synchrony.” I hadn’t expected such a lovely melody at the start and found the rhythmic and melodic tonal clusters that followed pleasantly accessible. Cowell also taught and reportedly influenced the work of other mavericks, particularly Cage and Lou Harrison.

John Adams

John Adams

Adams’ newest work, “Absolute Jest” followed. It is the fourth commission he has composed for San Francisco beginning with “Harmonium” in 1981. It is hard to believe that Adams was ever a musical maverick. However, he is credited with steering music away from the dry 12-tone exercises of academic modernism and back to a more expressive and humanistic realm. His 1986 opera, “Nixon in China” broke new ground and, ever since his 2002 tribute to the victims of 9/11, “On the Transmigration of Souls”, Adams has become the default composer for orchestra programmers, a contemporary composer audiences will tolerate.

As I listened to the buoyant, yet fractured rhythms, the work had a pastiche quality that, while enjoyable in performance, did not leave a lasting impression. Afterward, reading the program notes, Adams called the piece’s short bursts “quotations”.  While my ear caught, what I thought were snippets of Copland, I later learned that he was borrowing freely from Beethoven’s late quartets and even the Ninth Symphony.  The inclusion of the St. Lawrence String Quartet was an interesting touch. As stand-ins for Beethoven’s quartets, they played with fierce engagement, often in attacking juxtaposition to the orchestra. It was a novel but not entirely successful experiment.

I still don’t “get” Ives but I realize that he has changed modern music’s vocabulary and earned his “American Maverick” stripes. However, Henry Brant’s rich orchestration of Ives’ “A Concord Symphony” (originally a sonata solely for piano) softened many of the piece’s rough edges and made Ives’ ideas more pronounced and palatable, particularly the sweetly melodic third movement, The Alcotts.  His tribute to three other transcendental New England writers–Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau–remain a musical puzzle to my ears.

Tilson Thomas has lived with the music of these composers for many years. I left Symphony Center convinced that no other orchestra could interpret these works as convincingly and idiomatically. That opinion was evidently shared by many younger members of the audience who whooped and applauded heartily for each work on the program. The audience skewed much younger than the usual CSO audience. At least 1/3 of the crowd in the lower balcony were high school and college students. While the CSO offered heavily discounted pricing for students on their website and on Groupon, many also came because of Thomas and the orchestra’s reputation for contemporary fare. For a list of concerts in April and May with special $10 seats for students, go to

Though it was satisfying to hear the SFO at all, I wonder why Chicago audiences were treated to only one program from the festival while Ann Arbor presented three full programs  immediately after Chicago and New York’s Carnegie Hall is presenting all four festival programs. Tilson Thomas is a definite draw when he plays with our orchestra and a broad audience exists in Chicago for more adventuresome repertoire beyond the iconic three B’s. Was it not worth the risk of a less than full house to showcase rarely-performed works by such game-changing composers?  We missed out on hearing soprano Jesse Norman and Meredith Monk perform John Cage’s “Songbooks”, early Aaron Copland and Mason Bates’ recent commission for the SFO, “Mass Transmission.” Is Chicago still too provincial in its musical tastes? I’d like to think not.

Tilson Thomas was asked when he began his tenure in San Francisco 15 years ago what he hoped people would think about the orchestra in years to come. His response: “America’s most fearless, most dangerous and most generous orchestra.” As it celebrates its 100th Anniversary, I’d say the SFO has fulfilled that mission splendidly!