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.
“VIKINGS” Through Oct. 4 Just as no one in “Casablanca” ever says “Play it again, Sam,” the Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. They didn’t even call themselves Vikings. The apparently ill-named “Vikings” exhibit at the Field Museum aims to set straight misconceptions about the complex Norse civilization that flourished from the 8th to 11th centuries, through archaeological artifacts such as jewelry, weapons and religious objects, as well as re-creations including a Viking Age sword and a replica ship. Almost 500 objects will be on display at the exhibit’s only U.S. stop on an international tour.
My first foray into previewing upcoming museum exhibits for Crain’s.
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.
The opportunity to see behind the curtain of intelligence work brought Bridget Rose Nolan ‘02 the kind of media attention few recently minted Ph.D.s encounter. “People love hearing about spy stuff,” she says. Her dissertation about the culture of the American intelligence community was covered by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Slate.com, and the snark hub Gawker.com.
Can writing about someone who wrote about the CIA get you on any kind of watch list?
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.
Nick Gorga ‘99 sees hope in storefronts. He and his friend Ted Balowski founded Hatch Detroit, a nonprofit organization promoting independent retail stores in the city, on the belief that local, diverse retail spurs urban revitalization. Hatch’s current centerpiece is a contest: Potential small-business owners submit business plans, Hatch leaders narrow the list, and then a public vote selects the winner, which receives $50,000 in startup funds and another $50,000 worth of in-kind services.<br / …
A brief profile of Nick Gorga, a Detroit lawyer who founded a not-for-profit to help entrepreneurs in his hometown.
Eely but pragmatist, language accomplishes its ends but resists revealing its inner life. The purpose of language is communication, and so when its business is done, most messages evanesce without a second thought, their interlocutors heedless of the theoretical matrices they’re supporting or opposing. Language is a tool, a medium, a vehicle. The successful use of language results in the successful transmission of a message.
No—that’s too pragmatic a …
An essay on linguistics for Bulletins of the Serving Library, a journal of culture and ideas descended from Dot Dot Dot. In the essay, I examine sentences from linguistics education and from puzzles and games to poke holes in their objectives, in order to show that language is a good hole-poker.
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.
Chicago, home of the well-composed Chicago-style hot dog, is also ground zero for haute encased-meat cuisine. While many celebrated stands put their own spin on the original (including Gene & Jude’s, Byron’s, Superdawg, and Wiener’s Circle), several spots go farther afield, selling creative gourmet sausages. Here’s a guide to which are top dogs and which are just dogs.
HOTDOGERIA 711 W. Armitage Ave. 773-639-2976 Established 2011 Makes own sausages? No. …
I tasted dozens of sausages with creative toppings and reviewed the stands that serve them. Some of them were terrific. Some were dogs.
He’s the billionaire founder of the Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel. He’s also a philanthropist, a political player, a benefactor of the arts—and a person with a penchant for privacy. So who exactly is Kenneth Cordele Griffin? We scoured public documents, financial records, and other sources to come up with the answer.
In the last ten years or so, Ken Griffin has become one of the most prominent names in Chicago business, philanthropy, and—to a le …
I scoured public records and published stories to create a dossier on Kenneth Griffin, the founder of the hedge fund Citadel. He’s also a billionaire, and people love to read about billionaires.
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.
The moment of creation for a word often remains elusive. Typically (at least before the Internet age), a word gains popularity in local speech and then gets written down somewhere. When lexicographers start tracing lineage, the closest they can come to pinpointing a word’s birth is frequently its first appearance in print.
Still, Chicago—City on the Make—has demonstrably had a hand in the genesis of many well-known words and phrases. Here are Chicago’s top 40 contrib …
Chicago magazine ran a series of top-40 lists to celebrate its 40th anniversary. I contributed the top 40 English words with a Chicago pedigree.
A FOODIE ESCAPADE: You know a macaroon from a macaron, sweetmeats from sweetbreads, and St. Germain from St. Albray. Yup, you’re a foodie.
→ Start by queuing up for GRAHAMWICH, Graham Elliot Bowles’s River North sandwich-and-soda emporium opening late spring or early summer. If Xoco and Big Star are any indications, when top chefs make cheap food, it means long waits.
→ Stuck in line, you distract yourself from your belly’s crescendoing grumbles by readi …
Soon after I started writing for Dish, I collected a list of events and things to do for Chicago foodies as part of a summer package. The generous souls who moderate LTH Forum were a big help.
Why isn’t there more journalism about mathematics?
A linear-algebraic reading of journalism—specifically, what is lost when the overall amount of reporting decreases.
When searching for beefless burgers, If you want to avoid the bum steer, look for nonstandard ingredients
On the question of burgers without beef, the best strategy is the no-bull approach: If you want a hamburger, you should just order a hamburger. Turkey, vegetables, and tuna enjoy various culinary virtues, but impersonating beef is not among them. The standard hamburger fixings (sesame-seed bun, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, ketchup, and mustard) complement beef, so …
While it may not have been as heroic as Jeff Ruby’s consumption of dozens of burgers for the main bar of this burgers package, I ate a lot of turkey burgers, veggie burgers, and tuna burgers for this sidebar.
We set up a blind tasting of options from gourmet grocery stores and meat markets to find out which bacon is the best. Behold your guide to porcine bliss.
Life’s too short for bad bacon, especially if you’re already shortening it by eating bacon. And we’re eating a lot of it these days. Chicago restaurants and specialty shops have gone pork crazy—and they’re turning to gourmet producers or smoking their own, which in turn get name-dropped like designer labels. But wh …
The results of a bacon tasting. I was pleased to see that my bacon since childhood, Nueske’s, scored top marks with the tasters.
Everyone’s life crashes into a serious illness sooner or later. Maybe it happens to you, maybe your spouse, or maybe someone else close to you, but no one is immune. Fear and uncertainty arrive at the moment of diagnosis, weighing down patients with an overwhelming question: What do I do next?
This article is meant to guide patients and their loved ones and friends through the frightening maze of questions, choices, and challenges following the diagnosis of a serious illness. Several of the points made here refer specifically to cancer, but most of the information applies to all major illnesses.
A guide for patients who have recently been diagnosed with a long-term illness, especially cancer. Presented in FAQ-type format. The article was a finalist for a City and Regional Magazine award in 2010.
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.
There aren’t many places that bring together Darth Vader, a dead president, a moon rock, and a 12-ton bell.
Washington National Cathedral—officially the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul—has them all, as well as a 53-bell carillon, nine chapels, hundreds of stained-glass windows, thousands of works of needlepoint, the area’s largest pipe organ, and stone carvings too numerous to count.
A feature on the history of the Washington National Cathedral, written for its 100th anniversary. Standing up in the carillon looking out at D.C. beneath compensates for a lot of career frustrations.
Four different angles on shorthand, one of which I wrote for a class in journalism school.
The clock in DC’s Verizon Center counts down to two seconds. Trailing by two points, University of Connecticut guard Denham Brown comes down the court and pulls up at the three-point line. He shoots, and as the ball arcs toward the basket, the buzzer sounds. The ball, still alive on borrowed time, comes down on the rim, then bounces away.
Game over. Connecticut, the nation’s number-one team, exits the 2006 NCAA basketball tournament. George Mason University, nobody’s pick to win anything, heads to the Final Four.
About 20 miles west of the Verizon Center, on George Mason’s main campus in Fairfax, the phones start ringing—and don’t stop. Anxious to tell a Cinderella story, reporters want to know: “What is George Mason University?”
A profile of George Mason University, the largest public college in Virginia, a year after its unlikely run to the Final Four.
Pipe organs are the prima donnas of instrumental music—capable of beautiful sounds but very high-maintenance. Thousands of individually tuned pipes animated by the organist’s hands and feet make possible music of sublime complexity and subtlety. They also require a lot of attention because of their many components, including delicate mechanical interfaces and electrical wires that would run to miles if laid end to end.
A round-up of the D.C. area’s greatest pipe organs. I think every organist I interviewed for this story asked me, genuinely confused, “How did you decide to write about pipe organs?”
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.
Former governor George Ryan is only the latest in an ignominious line of Chicago and Illinois politicians who have been convicted of crimes committed while in office. A few remain in the public eye-ex–U.S. Representative Dan Rostenkowski offers political analysis on television, for example, and former alderman Cliff Kelley plays host on a popular radio show. But many others served prison terms and then disappeared from the news. We wondered what life was like on the other side of this experience, so we looked up some of these ex-cons to see how they were doing and what they were up to. In our unscientific survey, a surprising number were unrepentant, or at least unapologetic. Many volunteered opinions about overzealous prosecutors. And most, despite their past, seemed to have found some peace.
Mini profiles of 11 former Illinois politicians who had been convicted of corruption and sent to prison. I also got hung up on a lot during the reporting of this story.
Husband-and-wife filmmakers Patrick Creadon and Christine O’Malley had never made a feature-length movie. So when their documentary Wordplay sold out at the Sundance Festival before noon on the first day of ticket sales and won over the critics, the pair got much more than expected. “To get this sort of reception at Sundance is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” says Creadon, who grew up in suburban Riverside.
A front-of-the-book article for Chicago about the crossword-puzzle documentary Wordplay also allowed the editor of the section to find an excuse to have me construct a puzzle alongside.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported in March that a DePaul graduate student had auctioned off his soul on eBay for $504. In the market for a new soul himself after losing an ill-advised wager made with a “new friend” while watching football at his buddy Faust’s place, The Closer scoured eBay looking for a locally available replacement. No luck, but he did find a small trove of Chicago curiosities that just might tide him over for eternity.
The only time The Closer was written by anyone other than Jeff Ruby, which the feeble humor will reveal was probably one time too many.