Renée Fleming, one of the world’s top operatic sopranos and the first opera singer to sing the national anthem at a Super Bowl, last week re-upped as the first-ever creative consultant at Lyric Opera of Chicago, committing to two more years on top of her initial five-year term. During her tenure, she launched the project to commission the new opera Bel Canto, which premieres in December; expanded Lyric’s commitment to musical theater; and loosened a few cravats by partnering with the Second City. Chicago sat down with her to discuss (some of) her thoughts on her time thus far and hint at what her next two years hold.
Renée Fleming may not look back, but when I look back, I see this interview as a journalistic highlight of 2015 for me.
Glenn Kotche, the drummer of Wilco, is practiced in the art of novel instruments (that’s him in the Delta Faucet commercial). But for his new collaboration with the local quartet Third Coast Percussion, the 44-year-old takes that art to a new level. Kotche’s Wild Sound, a 43-minute tour de force, explores the world of percussive sound, one bizarre handcrafted instrument at a time. “I wanted an element of theater, without going into Stomp territory,” says Kotche.
A lot of cool instruments had to wind up on the cutting-room floor for this one. Amplified foam, a from-scratch one-string instrument, and the workbenches themselves all didn’t quite make the cut.
Chicago Opera Theater’s season comprises three productions, four shows each, as well as a few tie-ins and one-offs, on a budget of $2.9 million. By contrast, Lyric Opera of Chicago put on eight mainstage operas and one opera-size musical in its most recent fiscal year, totaling almost 100 performances, along with quite a lot of tie-ins and one-offs, on a budget just shy of $70 million. Sure, the different artistic goals of each company make this comparison apples-to-oranges (or maybe green-apples-to-red-apples), but how does COT do it?
I also played the role of photographer here. Equipment: iPhone.
The last time I saw Andrew Patner—but didn’t even say hello to him, which I regret—was eight days ago, at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season announcement. It took place in a posh room many stories above Michigan Avenue, with cameras, swag, and a catered lunch. I wore a tie, matching most attendees in formality. Patner wore jeans and a button-down—his signature style.
One of many, many tributes to a journalist and critic who deserved all of them.
One evening in September 2013, as the last F-major chord of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 died away at the Chicago Temple to end the third annual Beethoven Festival, notes of discontent already were being sounded.
A combination of cost overruns, a lack of credit and charitable pledges unfulfilled meant the festival had no money to pay the musicians onstage.
My Crain’s debut, spinning the tale of the meteoric Beethoven Festival.
At a media event Tuesday afternoon, in a windowless room deep in the bowels of the Civic Opera House, members of the creative team for Lyric Opera’s still-distant cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen gathered to hint at what audiences could expect when the four operas reach Lyric’s stage between 2016 and 2020. Those present received a few misty evocations of the character of the productions, and some negative information, too—so although we can’t really say what Lyric’s Ring is yet, we can say more about what it is not.
Lesson: How to cover a press conference where they don’t tell you much of anything.
For most of a century, listeners knew new music—a.k.a. contemporary classical—as those inscrutable bleepy-bloopy pieces deliberately positioned in the middle of orchestral programs so audience members couldn’t avoid them. But now, instead of being classical music’s egghead cousin, new music is more the quirky little sister, a persona created, at least in Chicago, by a youth-energized new community of performers and composers who are having fun. And they want you to, too.
Synesthetes, take note: Music sounds better with a beer.
The American composer Charles Ives, an insurance man by day for most of his compositional career, worked to craft a music that reflected the American landscape. “He saw the landscape as a kind of palimpsest,” says Gerard McBurney, the impresario of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s series Beyond the Score, a sort of theatrical program-note-cum-concert. “Its history was written and rewritten—the history of the people he belonged to. He wanted his music to be like that landscape.”
I’m hoping to repeat this format, letting people know what they might pick out of the texture at a classical concert. They won’t all be so easy as Ives.
Shunted discreetly behind a pillar in the Opera Club downstairs from the main lobby at the Civic Opera House, the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and I chat, out of sight of selfie-seeking groupies. She’s in town rehearsing for La Clemenza di Tito, the Mozart opera that began its run March 5th. We’re cramming our drink into the first intermission of opening night of Rusalka, which DiDonato is attending on her night off.
The photo that ran with this article shows only DiDonato. I have another one with her and me, taken by Nicholas Phan, no less.
Earlier in February, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti began a months-long Schubertiade. Before it’s all over, Orchestra Hall will be festooned with Franz Schubert’s complete symphonic output, with lieder, solo piano music, and chamber music confettied on top.
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 appeared in recent weeks. No. 9, the “Great C Major,” follows on March 20 to 22, Nos. 8 (the “Unfinished”) and 2 from March 27 to 29, Nos. 1 and 6 from June 12 to 17, and No. 5 to close the season June 19 to 21.
I was on a curse kick there for a while.
Almost as familiar as “break a leg,” the old-as-the-braes theatrical superstition about Shakespeare’s play Macbeth spooks even skeptical actors to refer to it as “the Scottish play” to avoid invoking the curse that has supposedly led to a real stabbing onstage, a Lady Macbeth sleepwalking off the set, and Charlton Heston’s tights catching fire after someone soaked them in kerosene.
Lyric Opera didn’t want to talk about the curse of Otello. But maybe they were just afraid of saying the name of the opera aloud.
Jeremy Denk has a lot of irons in the fire. He’s a concert pianist, currently touring in support of his Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach. He’s also an accomplished writer, recently securing a deal with Random House to expand one of his New Yorker essays, “Every Good Boy Does Fine” into a book. And oh yeah, the MacArthur Foundation just named him a fellow in its latest crop of geniuses. Denk, who performs at the Symphony Center on Sunday, October 13, took a few minutes to chat.
Have you ever talked to someone and thought, This person is like me, only way better at everything that he does?
New music can seem to outsiders like a cul-de-sac in the gated community of classical music. But within the past few years, this view has been belied by the mass of collaborations between new music and other genres, especially indie rock. Just in the past season, the indie musicians Bryce Dessner, Carla Kihlstedt, and Deerhoof performed with Chicago new-music ensembles. If that street is a dead end, it’s attracting a lot of cool visitors. Here’s how it happened.
After seeing a clustering of indie-rock/new-music crossovers, I wrote this critical piece about why this teamwork was happening, when it hadn’t before. Informed mainly by a conversation with Glenn Kotche, the drummer from Wilco, the article also cites from my earlier interviews with the operatic tenor Matthew Polenzani and the composer David Lang.
David Lang, 56, has gotten a lot of play in Chicago recently. In April, the New York–based composer and co-founder of the influential new-music collective Bang on a Can was in town to hear Eighth Blackbird perform his piece How to Pray and movements from his songs Death Speaks. Then, in May, he returned to hear the International Contemporary Ensemble premiere The Whisper Opera, the quietest piece you’ll ever hear, on a custom stage at the MCA for a mere 60 listeners. On August 26, Ravinia presents his Pulitzer-winning The Little Match Girl Passion, a work for four singers.
One-third of this webpage contains the extended version of my interview with the composer David Lang. A radically condensed version appeared in the July 2013 issue’s Summer Music Guide.
CHICAGO CULTURAL CENTER Free! 6/5 at 12:15 Steven Vanhauwaert, piano. 6/12 at 12:15 Rebecca Benjamin, violin, and Tatyana Stepanova, piano. 6/19 at 12:15 Jie Yuan, piano. 6/24 at 12:15 Susan Lageson Lundholm, soprano. 6/26 at 12:15 Sima Piano Trio. 78 E Washington. choosechicago.com.
I’ve been selecting classical- and new-music events monthly for Chicago magazine’s print listings since last year, but only now have they gone online also.
The players lift their bows with the customary this-is-the-end flourish, finishing a movement of a Shostakovich string quartet, and the audience claps. A few “Whoo!” yells escape from the back of the room. Some people whistle.
As the quartet launches into the next movement, a member of the audience stands up and says to his companion, “I’m going to get another beer. You want anything?”
My first story for the Tribune discusses groups putting on classical- and new-music concerts in different, less-stuffy venues where string quartets meet shoes sticking to the floor.
Already the musical leader of the Joffrey Ballet, the Mobile (Alabama) Symphony Orchestra, and the Muskegon-based West Michigan Symphony, Scott Speck was named the new artistic director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra last week, replacing Larry Rachleff after 23 years on the podium. Speck, 51, also co-authored Classical Music for Dummies, Opera for Dummies, and Ballet for Dummies.
A Q&A with Scott Speck, who also co-wrote Classical Music for Dummies, Opera for Dummies, and Ballet for Dummies. Quote from the cutting-room floor: “I love bikram yoga.”
When the Lyric Opera announced its 2013–14 season about a month ago, Chicago’s classical-music journalists instantly pegged it as conservative. “Lyric Opera’s 2013–14 season will be given over almost entirely to bread-and-butter repertory,” wrote the Tribune’s John von Rhein. The Sun-Times’ Andrew Patner wrote, “The company on Thursday announced a 2013–14 season of eight operas largely consisting of the tried, the true, and the Italian.”
Then, at a press conference discussing the upcoming season, music director Sir Andrew Davis and others fielded questions like, “Why no operas in French or English?” and “Why no baroque or contemporary works?” Among the responses: “It’s not our most way-out season.”
So how conservative is it?
After several classical-music writers around town pointed out the conservatism of Lyric Opera’s 2013–14 season, I undertook to measure it. In addition to the frequency-based index in the article, I also calculated the compass of years between the oldest and newest operas in a season, which gave similar results, but was cut for space.
In the classical music world, the word “power” doesn’t come up much, seeing as it’s not tripping off violinists’ tongues in conjunction with “amplifier,” “chord,” or “ballad.” But the charisma, perseverance, and musicianship it takes to climb an artistic mountain qualify as real power. Here’s who in Chicago has an eye trained on that summit now.
To accompany its March cover package on powerful Chicagoans, Chicago magazine asked its culture critics to pick the next generation of power brokers in their fields. Here’s my contribution for classical and new music, a post that set my personal record for Facebook likes.
Sadly for Chicago music fans, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Riccardo Muti, last week announced he’d miss more action, bowing out of the orchestra’s swing through Asia after hernia surgery. He already had canceled his appearances during the CSO’s winter homestand with flu-like symptoms. For the Naples-born conductor, it’s his third trip to the disabled list since becoming the orchestra’s ace before the 2010–11 season.
Compare that record with the injury-pro …
Feebly humorous post for Chicago magazine’s C Notes blog likening Riccardo Muti’s absences from the CSO to the frequently injured pitcher Jake Peavy’s missed starts for the White Sox.
On a conference call to do the first script read for The Second City Guide to the Opera, Renée Fleming, possibly the most famous operatic soprano in the world, threw out an idea. “We [have] to have a diva piece in there,” she said.
The envisioned sketch involved Fleming’s costume and makeup people fawning over her when she’s around—“Yes, Renée.” “Oh, of course, Renée.” “You look so beautiful, Renée!”—and then stomping on her dress and using her wig as a soccer ball …
An article about the comedy troupe Second City’s collaboration with Lyric Opera. My mom nearly fainted when she heard that I talked to Renée Fleming.
Sopranos may get all the high notes, but mezzo-sopranos have more fun. Case in point: In Chicago Opera Theater’s Teseo, opening April 21 at the Harris Theater, the up-and-comer Cecelia Hall makes her entrance covered in dirt and blood as the victorious warrior Teseo. Yep, Teseo, founder of Athens, slayer of the Minotaur.
A profile of the up-and-coming mezzo Cecelia Hall, then of the Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera.
Some people raise eyebrows at computers in the concert hall. When Mason Bates begins his two-year term as a composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in September, he’ll bring his electronica-infused compositions with him and challenge what audiences think along the way.
Bates, 33, wants to win over skeptics by showing us the places music takes him. “It never worked for me to think of it as going fishing for souls,” says the Virginia-raised composer, who moonlights …
A profile of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence Mason Bates as he was just starting the gig. He’s known for blending computerized sounds into concert-hall music and for moonlighting as a DJ.
In 1959, a British intellectual named C. P. Snow delivered what would become a seminal lecture. From a podium at Cambridge, Snow let loose on the world the concept of “the two cultures”—or the sharp divide between art and science. “Between the two—a gulf of mutual incomprehension,” he said. “Sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.”
Into this gulf plunges Doctor Atomic, a new opera that would have stimulated Snow—both a practical physicist and an aspiring novelist.
When Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Doctor Atomic, I talked to the composer (John Adams) and the director (Peter Sellars) about C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. Adams didn’t really buy that the opera had anything to do with the antagonism between science and the humanities, but it made for good conversation.
One of the world’s foremost operatic singers, Deborah Voigt shocked the world when she revealed in 2004 that the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden had fired her because she was too hefty. The Des Plaines–born soprano subsequently underwent gastric bypass surgery and slimmed down from a size 30 to a 12. In October, Voigt, 46, arrives in Chicago to sing the title role in Richard Strauss’s Salome, in which she plays the teenage sexpot who asks for-and receives-the head of John the Baptist as thanks for performing the seductive Dance of the Seven Veils. Chicago spoke to Voigt, who lives in Florida, about the upcoming Lyric Opera of Chicago production, how it feels to wear an average dress size, and posing nude in the publicity photos.
Q & A with the soprano Deborah Voigt about her gastric-bypass surgery, before her appearance in Salome at Lyric Opera. This interview had to be rescheduled because when I called at the appointed time, no one answered. She had left her phone at the Today Show.