Archive for the ‘Music – Contemporary’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Lyric’s Truly Unlimited Opera

Make haste! You have only until this Sunday (March 25) to catch the exciting new opera, “Fellow Travelers”, that Lyric Opera is presenting at the Atheneum Theatre. It is part of its “Lyric Unlimited” series, following on last year’s successful production of “Yardbird”, about jazz legend, Charlie Parker.

“Fellow Travelers” is a smaller-scale chamber opera. It had a reduced orchestra of approximately 16 musicians and an abbreviated schedule of four performances. It was limited in that sense. However, it was “unlimited” in terms of vocal talent, a great score and libretto, an ingenious stage set (that made imaginative use of basic gray file cabinets) and pure heartfelt emotion. The audience greeted the opening-night performance with lusty, sustained applause. As you can tell, I found it riveting and inspiring!

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack - Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack – Photo by Todd Rosenberg

The opera is set in the 1950s in a politicized Washington, D.C., much like today. Instead of Donald Trump, there’s the demagogic Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy, and his closeted, ruthless associate, Roy Cohn. It opens with Timothy Laughlin, an aspiring reporter, sitting on a park bench at Dupont Circle, a Washington focal point. He is soon joined by Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official.

Both men share an attraction and soon begin a homosexual relationship, a dangerous move in the midst of Sen. McCarthy’s witch hunt against gays and “Commies”  in the State Department. The opera depicts the dynamics of office politics realistically, interspersed with moments of great tenderness. It ends with  an all-too-common Washington ritual, the betrayal of a good man.

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack – Photo by Todd Rosenberg

What makes the opera groundbreaking is that it tells the story of two gay men from a gay perspective shared by its creative team, composer Gregory Spears, librettist Greg Pierce and talented director, Kevin Newbury. The action also depicts Laughlin and Fuller passionately embracing, kissing, and jumping into bed together quite realistically, all perhaps too strong for a full-scale production on Lyric’s mainstage.

Special recognition must be given to the male leads, Jonas Hacker (Timothy) and Joseph Lattanzi (Hawkins), both fine singing actors, Spear’s engaging score and Pierce’s masterfully concise adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s novel of the same name.

“Fellow Travelers” points to a new cultural moment developing in opera. And it’s all to the good. Composers, librettists and directors are turning to real life for opera material, as Mozart and Puccini did in centuries past. There is the aforementioned “Yardbird”, “Dead Man Walking” and “Bel Canto.” I hear that an opera, based on the Vietnam My Lai massacre, is being adapted.

In just the past month, I have seen a very imaginative production of “Elizabeth Cree” by Chicago Opera Theatre and now this triumph, which received its world premiere two years ago at Cincinnati Opera. Such productions, sporting more melodic scores than previously and gripping stories, should  enjoy second lives and adoption by other companies. These are the kinds of operas that will ensure this beloved genre’s bright future.

The remaining performances are March 21,23 and 25. For tickets, go to or call 312/827-5600. Atheneum Theatre is at 2956 N. Southport Avenue.

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.”