Friday, November 22, 2013

Do you know what it means...

Some day, when I'm feeling more confessional, I'll (maybe) share the story of how Hurricane Katrina changed my life. On the face of it, that's an enormously stupid and self-serving statement, considering that in August of 2005 I was enjoying a typical Chicago summer in a comfortable, well constructed home many miles from any natural and/or man made disaster. For now, though, I'll simply state around that time I began to find my voice as a writer, and the horrible blow that New Orleans suffered and the events that followed played a significant role in unearthing it.

New Orleans. The Big Easy. Nawlins. The Crescent City. NOLA.

I'm heading back there in a couple of weeks for my third post-Katrina visit. It is, far and away, my favorite city in North America. It is, without question, the most unique. It doesn't quite feel like the United States. A Dominican friend of mine told me, over a delicious Creole lunch in the French Quarter, that New Orleans reminded him of Santo Domingo. My own point of reference would be to San Juan, Puerto Rico, a place I go to as often as I can. New Orleans has a Caribbean soul.

Some, like jazz musician and favorite son Irvin Mayfield, say that NOLA is the northernmost tip of the Caribbean. Geographically debatable, perhaps, but culturally true. With its mix of French, Spanish and, most importantly, African influences, New Orleans was thoroughly shaped by the slave trade, just like its Caribbean cousins. Cuban rumba, Dominican merengue, Trinidadian calypso, Jamaican reggae, Puerto Rican bomba, Colombian cumbia, New Orleans jazz. They're all a cultural expression of the African diaspora when it arrived in the Americas and mingled with both European practices and indigenous customs. "Same ship, different ports," is how Mayfield describes it. People from New Orleans like to use the culinary term 'gumbo' when describing this mix of cultures. Every distinct ingredient, flavor and texture is crucial to the whole.

I was fortunate to be able to talk with Irvin Mayfield earlier this week because he was bringing the magnificent New Orleans Jazz Orchestra to the Chicago Theatre and a couple of online publications were kind enough to let me write a preview article.

You can read the whole thing here.

The concert was a sprawling, 3 hour tribute to jazz and the two cities that are crucial to its development; New Orleans, where it was born, and Chicago, where it grew up. The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) is no period piece. It doesn't, as a rule, do traditional stuff. Rather, it's a muscular ensemble that navigates the whole history of jazz. The inclusion of not one, but two selections from Duke Ellington underscored the fact that this music had to journey from New Orleans to Chicago before it reached Duke, inspiring one of America's greatest composers. Original compositions dotted the program, including a blistering Cuban-inspired number from Mayfield's days co-leading Los Hombres Calientes, a NOLA band that explicitly traced African music through the Caribbean and Brazil. Trad was not ignored altogether. In fact, it was prominently featured with the help of guests the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, keeping the tradition alive since the early 60s. The R&B side was ably represented as well by the one and only Allen Toussaint, who's been working even longer.

photo by Lynn Orman
There were plenty of props to Chicago, too, with guest appearances by vocalist Kurt Elling, trumpeter Orbert Davis (who leads the ambitious Chicago Jazz Philharmonic) and a host of journeymen who labor farther from the spotlight: bassist Larry Gray, drummer Robert Shy and the amazing 82-years-young pianist Willie Pickens. "I think it's all a scam so we'll treat him with reverence," joked Mayfield from the stage. "I think he's really 42."

Of course, the whole thing ended in a New Orleans second line parade, the band and its guests streaming up and down the Chicago Theatre aisles while hundreds danced joyfully, waving their handkerchiefs in the air.

My flight leaves in two weeks. NOJO holds court in Mayfield's own Jazz Playhouse in the Quarter every Wednesday evening. That's one stop I have to make. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Is limited gentrification possible? And maybe even a good thing?

Several things have me thinking about gentrification lately. I don't know about you, but when I hear that word I immediately go to the negative connotations, the profit driven force that fills historic neighborhoods with haves and displaces the have-nots, obliterating their character in the process. That's odd, because I am, in some ways, a gentrifier. That is to say, I'm a white dude that likes to live in diverse and funky neighborhoods where, more often than not, the median income is below average.

I've written of my love for my neighborhood, Rogers Park, but in the same piece that extols its historic character and scrappy nature, I express my gratitude for relatively recent additions like farmers markets, lively nightspots and hip cafes. If fact, as I write this, I'm sitting in a new cafe on Howard Street near Ashland, which anyone not living in Rogers Park (and, I suspect, some who do) will tell you is a sketchy block that is best avoided. The area across the street is home to some of Rogers Park's poorest citizens. Nonetheless, Sol Cafe does its best to engage the immediate community, hosting discussion groups, local artist exhibits and other ways to combat this fear. It has a airy, welcoming feeling enhanced by a huge floor to ceiling window that lets in plenty of light. Howard Street itself recently upgraded its streetscape, and a vacant lot on the other side of Ashland will soon be a sizable community garden. There are less empty storefronts, and the Caribbean-American Bakery up the block, rebuilt after a fire, is still going strong.

And yet, Rogers Park remains an extremely affordable place to live. Neighborhood grocery stores sell their produce for less than you'd pay at a supermarket, and you can still get a stunningly delicious taco al pastor at any number of taquerias for two bucks. Rogers Park may be on the lake shore and blessed with lovely beaches and parks, but it's still pretty far from downtown. Heck, the nearest Divvy bikeshare station is still three miles south of here.

By contrast, Wicker Park is in another part of Chicago, one much closer to downtown, that went from a historically Polish neighborhood to one that was on the skids, but then became an edgy artist enclave in the 80s. Within 15 years, the transformation to the upscale was total, and the signs and t-shirts that pleaded "Keep Wicker Park Weird" were all gone.

Anyway, I'm thinking of this because I recently spent most of an entire weekend in Pilsen during their annual Open Studios art walk. The neighborhood is historically Czech, but transitioned to primarily Mexican in the 70s and 80s. It, too, became an artist enclave, but this time the artists were grounded in Latino traditions, their work a cultural expression of Latinidad. Even a casual walk around the neighborhood makes this apparent. Murals that range from historic Chicano depictions to graffiti-inspired abstractions are everywhere, and more often than not galleries are gloriously chaotic spaces, often doubling as studios and workshops, the very opposite of sleek showrooms.

Pilsen lies even closer to downtown than Wicker Park, and it also lies just south of the University of Illinois campus and Medical District. You can bet that real estate developers have been coveting it for years. And, indeed, the area is dotted with new condos and, yes, several Divvy stations.

Without question, Pilsen is changing. Funky designer boutiques are popping up, and there's a whole lot more to choose from than tacos and carnitas when dining out. Hipster entrepreneurs from north side neighborhoods are taking notice and opening restaurants and bars. But there are signs that, even with these trendy new accoutrements, an effort is under way to respect and retain the character of the neighborhood.

New businesses like Simone's Bar and Pl-zen (named after the Czech city that gave the neighborhood its name) have taken care to honor the street art muralist tradition. The charming and very busy La Catrina Cafe is named after one of the most beloved figures in Mexican folk art, and a substantial amount of its square footage is devoted to a gallery and event space for local artists. Needless to say, they serve a delicious Mexican hot chocolate alongside their lattes. Día de los Tamales takes that most humble of Mexican foods and puts a modernist twist on ingredients.

Perhaps most hopeful of all, though, was a simple grocery store that I stumbled into almost accidentally when I noticed the facade was newly painted in vibrant colors. A neighborhood grocer has occupied this corner for as long as I can remember, but something was different. Curious, I noticed that it was now called MeztiSoy. "Soy" is, of course, a vegetarian staple, but it's also Spanish for a declaration of self, meaning "I am." Soy Mexicano. Mestizo, on the other hand, describes the complex identity of someone who is of both European and Amerindian descent. Something thoughtful was clearly going on here.

So I went in. And there, all in one place, side by side, was an organic produce market that also carried a large selection of the packaged goods that you will find in any Mexican supermercado throughout the city. These are beloved items from back home, comforting in their ordinariness. To top it all off, there was a taqueria in the back, albeit one that serves vegan soy chorizo fajitas alongside caldos, tacos and other traditional favorites. Locally owned, the whole place defiantly asserted that organic farm-to-table ingredients and mindful eating are most definitely NOT for hipsters only.

Finally, you can't discount the resiliency of long time residents who rightly view all of these changes with some concern, but also considerable strength. An artist that I spoke with, when asked about the threat of gentrification, remarked, "Latinos don't rent. We buy. We're hard to get rid of."

I think Pilsen is going to be just fine.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Chicago Sinfonietta honors Día de los Muertos

If you've ever glanced at the little bio sketch over there on the right, you noticed that I am both a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a freelance writer. I recently had the opportunity to combine both skill sets for the Chicago Sinfonietta, which is one pretty cool orchestra. (Full disclosure: I toiled as the Sinfonietta's Marketing Director for several years.) On November 9 in Naperville and November 11 in Chicago, they will present their fourth annual concert honoring the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos.  

They asked me to research and write program notes for both their website and the book that they hand out at the concert. I initially found the project a bit challenging because, though honoring a Mexican holiday, there were no works by Mexican composers being performed. That forced me to look a little deeper into the commonalities between Dia and the Catholic All Souls' Day, which are both, not at all coincidentally, on November 2. As I (virtually) traveled back and forth between Argentina, Austria and Spain, the commonalities that bridge cultures became apparent, as well as the changes that occur when customs, rituals and practices migrate from one place to another.  As that sort of cultural exchange is the underlying theme of this blog, I thought I'd share the results of my work with you here.

First, there's the "Digital Guide" that appears on the Sinfonietta website. Besides brief essays on the composers, performers and works being performed, there are embedded videos that illustrate the selections and uniqueness of the artists. Because of the dictates of marketing, the essays are short and (hopefully) snappy, designed to intrigue you enough to watch a video and then (ca-ching!) buy a ticket.

The program notes were a chance to stretch out and explore the themes of the concert with a bit more depth and thoughtfulness. Please read on, and let me know if I succeeded.

Maybe I'll see you at the concert!

The Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) has origins in pre-Columbian Mexico. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed there for as long as 2,500–3,000 years.  On the Aztec calendar, it was a month-long celebration occurring in August. The conquering of the “New World” by Spain changed all that. As a matter of cultural survival, indigenous customs and beliefs were often disguised by their practitioners as Catholic rituals to hide them in plain sight from their conquerors; the holiday now corresponds to the Catholic observance of All Souls’ Day. In this way, Aztec rituals were combined with those of Spanish Catholic origin to create the holiday as we know it. Further, because of this Spanish connection, some version of the holiday is also observed throughout much of the Americas. 

The holiday honors the remembrance of departed loved ones, mourning their absence while simultaneously celebrating their lives and the continuing spirit that they leave with us. Graves are cleaned and decorated. Shrines, or ofendras, are built in their honor. Favorite foods and beverages are brought and offered. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments directed to them. Here, death is not thought of as an ending, but rather a continuation of life in a different form. Celebrations often take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.

With our concert, the Sinfonietta captures both sorrow and joy with an aural and visual spectacle worthy of those who have passed before. We’ll travel from stark tragedy to celebratory revels, passing back and forth between the Americas and Europe, illustrating a universal yearning that all of humanity shares.

Our journey begins in early 20th century Spain, by way of Argentina, but anchored in religious and cultural traditions that pre-date both. Composer Osvaldo Golijov was born to a Jewish family in La Plata, Argentina in 1960. His mother was a piano teacher, his father, a physician. He was raised surrounded by classical, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla. He studied piano and composition at the local conservatory before moving first to Israel, and then the United States to continue his studies. His music is a reflection of these multiple influences, rendered as a cohesive whole. 

Ainadamer, his first opera, premiered in 2003. The title is Arabic for “Fountain of Tears”, and the story, by noted playwright David Henry Hwang, is based on Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca and his partner and muse, the Catalan actress Margarita Xirgu. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, as Xirgu remembers García Lorca’s life and the circumstances leading to his death. Ainadamar has features of both an opera and a passion play, as it examines the powerful symbolic role García Lorca has embodied, especially among other artists, following his murder during the Spanish civil war. In this symbolism, the poet becomes a martyr in the name of freedom of artistic expression, and his soul and spirit stay alive.  

Based as it is on events in Spain, Ainadamer is filled with Iberian musical influences, notably flamenco, but the score also illuminates the Arabic and Jewish predecessors of that familiar sound.  The short Preludio is filled with ominous percussive effects, some of which are the electronically generated sounds of gurgling water and galloping hoof beats, and it segues directly into the Balada. This introduction, for orchestra, chorus and soprano, will be performed at Día de los Muertos.

If Ainadamer has elements of a religious passion play woven into its structure, the evening’s second selection is an authentic liturgical ritual, albeit one written by a master of classical music that is augmented in this performance by elements of theatrical presentation.

As noted earlier, Día de los Muertos occupies the same spot on the calendar as the Catholic All Souls’ Day. One of the rituals of the Church is the requiem mass for the dead. As such, it is also meant to honor their life. Its history and practice date back to the early Roman church. Beginning in the late 15th century, the requiem mass began to inspire a large number of composers who were drawn to the dramatic character of the ritual’s text. By the 18th century, requiems became a genre of classical music unto itself as composers began to write them as concert works separate from liturgical use.

Classical music has its share of intrigue, betrayal and people behaving badly. In other words, it’s a lot like the rest of human existence. But even by these standards, the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem stands apart. It was the composers’ final work. In fact, he died before its completion. The severely ailing Mozart was approached in 1791 by the emissary of an anonymous count who wanted a mass to commemorate the recent of the death of his wife. The composer was given half of a commission, with the balance to be paid on its completion.  The story, though, is that the count, who had artistic pretensions, planned to pass off the composition as his own. Mozart, feverish and near the end of his life, reportedly came to believe he was writing his own requiem. As it turns out, that is pretty much what happened.

After Mozart died, his widow Constanze, not wanting to lose the remaining commission, secretly had it completed by another composer, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. The finished manuscript was delivered bearing Mozart’s forged signature. However, the count’s alleged scheme to claim authorship was derailed when a public performance of the requiem, organized by Constanze, was given before the count presented his. If all of this sounds familiar, it is because a somewhat fictionalized account of the episode appeared in Peter Shaffer’s play (and later movie) Amadeus.

The Sinfonietta’s performance of selections from the Requiem will be dramatized by inventive costumes created by Redmoon Theater that will be worn by members of the choir. The skeleton designs that Redmoon created are strikingly reminiscent of images used in much Mexican folk art. These iconic figures appeared in the work of 19th century artist and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada. Considered the most renowned Mexican popular artist, it is Posada’s images that come to mind almost automatically when we think of Día de los Muertos.

The passing of the seasons have long been used as a metaphor for the cycle of life. Who hasn’t heard the phrase “autumn years” (or its gentler counterpart “golden years”) used to describe people deep into their lives? There’s no indication that the Argentine composer and originator of nuevo tango Astor Piazzolla had this in mind when writing Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) but there is that passionate and edge-of-tragedy feel that permeates so much of tango, so who knows? Piazzolla has certainly written pieces that directly address death and remembrance; in fact, both Adios Nonino (commemorating his father) and Oblivion have been performed at previous Sinfonietta Día de los Muertos concerts.

Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, not far from where Osvaldo Golijov would be born 39 years later. For many years Piazzolla lived something of a double life, playing in tango bands by night, studying classical composition by day.  While studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, he was made aware that the ‘classical’ forms he was copying did not reflect his true soul. Returning to Buenos Aires, he began creating what would become nuevo tango. 

Estaciones Porteñas (a porteño is a person born in the Argentine capital) was originally four separate pieces written for his tango quintet. In 1998, Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov wrote a new arrangement with a more obvious link to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by converting each of the pieces into three-section movements and re-arranging them for solo violin and string orchestra. To strengthen the link he included several quotations from Vivaldi's original work. Of course, in the southern hemisphere, warm and cold months are reversed, so some quotations are not where you’d think they would be. 

El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three Cornered Hat), the final performance of the concert, has its beginnings in a modest two act ballet by Manuel de Falla. The libretto, derived from a novella by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, is the story of a magistrate infatuated with a miller's faithful wife and his attempts to seduce her. A 1916 performance in Madrid was witnessed by Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who was so taken by the music that he commissioned Falla to score a full orchestral ballet from its themes. The resulting work had its premiere in London in 1919, with costumes and scenery by no less a figure than Pablo Picasso.

You may have noticed that Falla’s ballet was written during roughly the same time and setting portrayed in Osvaldo Golijov’s opera. There is, though, a further connection between the two works. García Lorca, the subject of Ainadamer, was an accomplished pianist, part-time composer and something of a musicologist, especially when it came to flamenco. He and Falla were friends, and together they staged a festival of the authentic form of cante jondo, or “deep song,” as the most substantial branch of flamenco is known. Some of the singing in the complete El sombrero de tres picos is modeled after cante jondo, and flamenco rhythms power the dances. The Suite No. 2, heard tonight, consists of three orchestral dances.

In keeping with the themes of his opera, Golijov brought out flamenco’s ominous, darker underpinnings in his score, as when the sharp percussion echoes the gunshots that killed García Lorca. Falla’s tale, however, is a gentler and often humorous one with an ultimately happy ending, and the music is brighter and more celebratory because of it.

Thus, with this lively conclusion to the concert, we celebrate. But we also remember.