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BackStage

Classical Music

Odds and Ends from the ASOL

May 24, 2006

Most of us are members of the American Symphony Orchestra League, a trade organization made up of orchestras from across the country. One benefit of membership is a daily e-newsletter that keeps all of us up to date on what’s happening in the field. Every now and then they include some interesting news items, including a recent article about a Chicago-based company, LifeGem Memorials, that plans on fabricating diamonds using strands of Beethoven’s hair. This company has been creating diamonds incorporating the remains of humans for a few years. This seems a little creepy to me, though it does make one wonder if certain people might be a little brighter in death than they were in life. A few weeks after that item appeared, the ASOL published a digest of an article written by Orange County Register critic, Timothy Mangan. This article commented on the lack of “superstars” in classical music today. He cites Toscanini, Heifetz, and Callas as examples of classical music performers who had attained “superstar” status and were widely known by the general public, and also mentioned that Itzhak Perlman had been a guest on Hollywood Squares! Regrettably, we don’t seem to have any Hollywood Square-worthy classical music artists out there today. So why do these two articles end up in today’s blog? Because they illustrate how dramatically our world has changed in the last twenty years and what classical music is up against in gaining a broader market share. Beethoven is a brand. He’s Coca-Cola, Nike, and Disney. Everybody knows Beethoven because he is the classical music world’s version of “Branjelina,” only with staying power. We certainly have stars in classical music. What we don’t have are celebrities. Do we need them to draw people in? If yes, how do we find and promote them? This blog is officially open for comments on the need for superstars and celebrities to drive interest in what we are doing, or ideas about who you would most like to see made into a piece of jewelry.

Your own private music tutor

May 19, 2006

We all think about how to help our concertgoers enjoy our performances beyond the excellence we put on the stage. An important element is the educational component – providing program notes on the music and the composers’ lives, holding pre- or post-concert talks and lecture-demonstrations, creating lobby displays of photos and scores, including definitions of musical terms and discographies of further listening recommendations in the program book.Most of those elements are incorporated in a new book, The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music, by former New York Times music critic and NPR commentator Ted Libbey, who is coming to town next Wednesday to promote it. (It also includes an entry on our mighty Chicago Symphony Orchestra!) An innovative bonus feature included with the book is a website created by Naxos and Workman Publishing that offers examples of terms, techniques and music cited in the book, so your learning can take place at your convenience.Finally, I’ll add my thanks on behalf of everyone at The Chicago Chamber Musicians to Wynne Delacoma in these last few weeks before her retirement from the Chicago Sun-Times. She has done so much to support and encourage CCM and Chicago music in a thoughtful, fair, professional and meaningful way. Wynne, you will be missed!

Mark-Anthony Turnage and Osvaldo Golijov in Chicago

May 19, 2006

Earlier this week, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new Mead Composers-in-Residence Mark-Anthony Turnage and Osvaldo Golijov were in town get better acquainted with Chicago and to share news of Symphony Center’s MusicNOW new music series programming for 2006-2007.  Beginning in September, Mark and Osvaldo will succeed Augusta Read Thomas, who is now completing her impressive nine (!) years in residence with the CSO. Augusta’s achievements in Chicago have been remarkable. She’s been a tireless advocate for new music and composers.  The CSO has commissioned and premiered five of her works since 1996; a sixth, Astral Canticle gets its world premiere performances with the CSO and Daniel Barenboim at Symphony Center on June 1 through 3. Both Mark and Osvaldo credit Augusta with the launch, growth, care-and-feeding of MusicNOW, the CSO’s new music series. This series launched in Symphony Center’s Buntrock Hall in 1998 and quickly outgrew its original home.  All four concerts next season will take place at the Harris Theater. MusicNOW has become a really important part of the CSO’s overall programming mix, a chance to hear programs dedicated not only contemporary music, but music by living composers, many of whom come to Chicago for the performances, interacting with concertgoers and talking about their music. For next season, Mark and Osvaldo have curated two MusicNOW concerts each, working in close collaboration with the series’ principal conductor Cliff Colnot.  Their repertoire selections represent an eclectic mix of international composers from György Ligeti and Jonathan Harvey and Gerardo Gandini to Shirish Korde and György Kurtág and Hans Werner Henze.  Through their personal repertoire selections, I think we will have the chance to get to know these two gentlemen better and hear interesting music by composers who have not been so well known or well-represented in Chicago. We will also hear music by Golijov and Turnage on the series. A sure highlight in October program will Mark’s own composition Kai; Scored for cello and ensemble, CSO cellist Katinka Kleijn will be soloist.  MusicNOW in June will bring us Osvaldo’s Ayre, written especially for soprano Dawn Upshaw, who appears as soloist.  Ayre—meaning “air” and “melody” in medieval Spanish—is a 40-minute cycle of 11 songs drawn primarily from a large body of 15th century Spanish folk songs. The music is a lush mix of Spanish and Mediterranean influences incorporating everything from Sephardic folk tunes to Semitic electronica to Arabic poetry. Chicago audiences can catch a first hearing of Osvaldo’s music this summer at Ravinia, where his one-act opera Ainadamar (Fountain of Tears) will be performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and soprano Dawn Upshaw. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will present a semi-staged version of Ainadamar as part of its 2007-2008 subscription season. Osvaldo is also now finishing a cello concerto to be premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the CSO at Ravinia in August.  We’ll hear more from him during the CSO’s 2006-2007 subscription concert season when the Orchestra performs his Last Round and Night of the Flying Horses. Mark reports that he is very very very close to finishing his new work commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Esa-Pekka Salonen, the CSO, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago with choreographer Jorma Elo are scheduled to give the world premiere of this new work in January 2007 at Symphony Center.  It will be the fourth consecutive season that the CSO and Hubbard Street will perform together and this new piece was commissioned especially for this special partnership.  While choreographers have used Mark’s music in their work before, he has never before written a work specifically for dancers and he seems really to love the creative challenge its specificity and structure present, requiring tremendous discipline and resourefulness on his part.  It won’t be long before we are temporarily adjusting the orchestra set-up at Orchestra Hall, making room for dance, transforming the space, and bringing this new work to life. Both composers also took time this week meeting with potential community and cultural partners and exploring ideas, especially in the area of education.  They have told us they love spending time in Chicago and they are very much looking forward getting to know the city better.  Interesting – the two of them had never met until this visit!  They spent their time sharing ideas about their residencies and although much of their time in 2006-2007 will be spent coming individually, they have now decided, based on this visit, that some future visits together are in order. If you are not familiar with Osvaldo and Mark’s work and would like to learn more, I would encourage you to visit their Web sites at www.osvaldogolijov.com and www.markanthonyturnage.com.  Definitely worth checking out!

To See or Not to See

May 17, 2006

Chicago Sun-Times critic, Wynne Delacoma, wrote a terrific preview of our May 14-15 performances in which she calls the idea of adding visuals to a classical concert “a hot-button issue.”  With my various experiences in the presentation of live performances including eighteen years at the Old Town School of Folk Music and three plus years at the Chicago Theatre, I just don’t get why this would be controversial.  In every other form of music I’ve produced, the visual experience is part of the package.  Whether it be dramatic lighting or simply the performer's own moves, the visual element always seems to add to the music, not detract from it.  Let's face it, most of us are pretty visually oriented, and if the talk turns to the next generation of classical music fans, they are very used to visually stimulating leisure time activities.   This week, we presented our season finale concerts, which included Holst’s The Planets.  If ever a piece lends itself to visual accompaniment, this is it.  Under the deft hand of Adler Astronomer, graphic artist and classical music lover Dr. José Francisco Salgado, the stunning images from space turned into another instrument, caressing the music like a well-practiced collaborator.   The audience, comprised of school-age children, twenty- and thirty-somethings, boomers, and older people (in other words, everyone), responded extremely positively to the presentation.  Our musicians loved it as well.   So as always, I want to turn to you and ask what you think of the use of visuals in classical music.  Shameless pandering or a refreshing and needed entertainment value added?  Also, please share any good or bad experiences you have had with this. Finally, as Jim Palermo mentioned in his recent blog, Wynne Delacoma will be leaving the Sun-Times soon.  I want to add my sincere thanks to Wynne for her fair and thoughtful coverage of our concerts.  Best of luck to a consummate professional. 

Getting Up To Speed, or How I Learned to Love My Bow

May 9, 2006

Today we welcome guest blogger Paul Zafer, Concertmaster of the Chicago Sinfonietta.  Hello!  Jim Hirsch, the Executive Director of the orchestra, asked me to write a few words regarding my personal preparation for a concert. When I get the sheet music for a work we are going to perform, I sit down to practice it on my own.  First and foremost, I make sure my cup of hot tea is in the mug holder attached to my music stand.  Other necessities are a pencil and my metronome.I usually try running through the piece close to the performance tempo.  At this point I am using all of the violin skills I have acquired over my many of years of lessons, coaching, practicing, etc.  If all of that doesn’t do the trick and produce a flawless result, I slow things way down and start considering different fingerings or bowings. In a piece such as Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Voodoo Violin Concerto, the rhythms are particularly challenging so the metronome gets a heavy workout. There are many styles in this piece outside the realm of mainstream, Bach-through-Strauss, classical music. These different styles make this particular piece more challenging and interesting for me.The first movement is a bit jazzy. I have to figure out how to do the slides, bent notes, and wild vibrato that the composer indicates in my part.  The second movement is like a Gregorian chant - very calm and serene.  I have to focus on my bow arm and make sure I am producing a pure tone.  In the last movement, things get more frenetic.  Keep an eye on my bow arm – it will be flying around! In a more well-known work such as Gustav Holst’s The Planets, I am revisiting it so I can do more spot practice work on notoriously difficult passages.  Again, the metronome gets a good workout to get it up to speed.  All of my homework should stand me in good stead come the first rehearsal with the full orchestra.  Sometimes, if Maestro Freeman’s tempi are different than what I practiced, I have to change some things to match his vision. Hopefully, in the end, my bowings and fingerings will stand the test of the performance. I hope this gives you an enlightened perspective when you attend the upcoming performances of the Chicago Sinfonietta on May 14 and 15  . Regards, Paul Zafer