Friday, September 19, 2014

Danilo Pérez: From Panama to Chicago, with love

I've been meandering my way through this thing called the music business for nearly 30 years. It's really the only thing I know how to do, and it's certainly the only thing I want to do. I've seen a lot of excess and stupidity in that time, and participated in my share. More often, though, I've simply been lucky that working in this area in one capacity or another has continually exposed me to wonderful experiences and terrific artists.

One of those artists is the Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo Pérez. I was introduced to him in January of 1997 at the Jazz Educator's Association conference in Chicago, and I was immediately struck by his warmth and generosity. I've seen him perform at three different incarnations of the Jazz Showcase; the present location, the space on Grand Avenue in River North and, before that, the faded and shabby elegance of the Blackstone Hotel before it was renovated. I even got to host an in-store performance by him in support of his CD Panamonk when I ran the music department at the sadly departed Borders store on Michigan Avenue.

It's been over three years since I last saw him, so I was eagerly awaiting last night's performance at the Jazz Showcase for a few months. I was also fortunate that the Afro-Latin publication Agúzate let me write a show preview and review of his recent Panama 500 album, which you can read here. Writing that piece forced me to sit down and really listen to Panama 500 closely, and I was richly rewarded.

all photos by Omar Torres-Kortright
Pérez is as inventive as ever as a pianist and improvisor, but he's also still the generous individual that I met nearly 20 years ago. His band on this visit includes his long-time drummer Adam Cruz (phenomenal as always) and two fresh young musicians from Jerusalem. Bassist Tal Gamlieli stepped up solidly in place of Ben Street, and Roni Eytan's harmonica evoked at various times the string arrangements from Panama 500, hints of Panamanian style accordion and even tropical bird calls. Danilo led all three musicians in what was clearly a joyous adventure, onstage and off.

Much of the evening was devoted to Panama 500, but the altered instrumentation and Pérez's intense need to open doors and explore ideas guaranteed that the approach to those songs was imbued with improvisational twists and turns. The same goes for his deep forays into Monk and Dizzy.  Two sets, two-plus hours of music, exquisite 'til the very last note.

In preparing for my Agúzate article, I had the opportunity to ask Danilo a few questions about his art and what I have long suspected was a special relationship with Chicago.

Don: Panama has been a central subject of much of your music going all the way back to Panamonk, and what strikes me the most is how little it sounds like what is commonly known as “Latin jazz”. What’s different
about Panama?

Danilo: Panama’s strategic geographical position has allowed for the amalgam of many cultures. Panama is one the most globalized countries in Latin America and therefore has a very rich and diverse history.  The Bridge of the Americas located in Panama is a huge inspiration for me and I have been writing and performing music that it is more related to global jazz using elements from Jazz, Classical and Latin America folkloric elements.

Don: I hear so much of the ‘indigenous’ in your music. And although Caribbean culture often references the mix of European, African and indigenous cultures, for me the African and European influences seem to dominate in most music, but this is not the case with you. Tell me a bit about that.

Danilo: The music I am hearing and writing required different tone colors. For Panama 500, my last project, I used the Guna’s folkloric element, violin and cello, plus Panamanian percussion sounds. This added a fantastic color to the mix. Also with the narrations I used their voice and language as an inspiration to improvise and write music. To use music as a tool to send a message of dialogue and equality is very important to me, and as a UNESCO Artist for Peace it is already a responsibility. Therefore in Panama 500 the Guna Indians taught me how little informed we are about history and that the discovery of Pacific Ocean should be reviewed and studied as a rediscovery instead. Every project that I embark on I really like to focus on the elements that unite them: Africa, Europe and Latin American folklore.

Don: I hope I’m not being presumptuous, but Chicago seems to be a special place for you. I’m going back to at least Panamonk, when I first met you, but even your first totally independent project Live at the Jazz Showcase was recorded here. Am I imagining that fondness?

Danilo: No, you are right, it is a very special place because it has provided me with a lot of inspiration to write and play music. A lot of special commissions to write music and a lot of important collaborations in my musical life. I really have a special place in my heart for this amazing, creative city.

Don: At this point in your career you could almost exclusively be a concert hall performer, getting paid well for one night’s work, but you are doing the full four nights, two sets a night at the Jazz Showcase this week. Why?

Danilo: It is important to me to keep experimenting, mentoring and reworking my craft, [and] the Jazz Showcase is an institution of jazz music and provides me with all these opportunities to keep developing.

Danilo Pérez continues at the Jazz Showcase through Sunday, September 21. It's a busy music weekend in Chicago, but you really should find a way to get there and experience this amazing music and person for yourself. Trust me, you'll be happy that you did.


Friday, September 5, 2014

My summer with Sones de México, or why I love Chicago

Chicago, as a major U.S. city, has always been a destination for immigrants. My grandparents on both sides arrived here from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century and settled on the south side. Chicago was an industrial powerhouse in those days, producing steel from the mills and meat from the Stock Yards in equal measure. Industry meant jobs, and jobs (then and now) often mean immigrants in search of a better life. My grandparents were preceded by the Germans and Irish, and followed by Mexicans and African-Americans (not strictly immigrants, but the American south with its Jim Crow laws could have been another country).

All of them faced hardships and discrimination upon their arrival, but hung in just the same, over time transforming the city into the multicultural place it is today. Those prejudices, sadly, haven't gone away, especially in the case of those easily identifiable by facial features and skin color. Segregation and poverty remain deep scars in our psychic and physical landscapes. Chicago is nobody's idea of paradise, but its blue collar working class culture still holds out a promise, not always fulfilled, that if you come here and you work hard, you can change your life for the better.

photo: Todd Winters
The members of Sones de México Ensemble all arrived in the early 1990s, as Pilsen, a near south side community with Czech roots that was my grandparent's starting place here, was transforming itself into the cultural and artistic heart of Chicago's Mexican-American community. I've followed the group off and on for years and became personally acquainted with some of its members. Twelve weeks ago, an e-mail arrived out of the blue asking if I'd be willing to assist them with the marketing of an upcoming concert. One of the members was aware that I was struggling a bit financially and knew of my work at the Chicago Sinfonietta, who had done a few collaborations with Sones over the years. I thought about it for about 2 seconds before saying yes.

And so it was that a part-time job quickly turned into an all-consuming endeavor and, as it turns out, one of the most satisfying projects of my professional life. More importantly, though, it was a profoundly moving experience that unexpectedly connected me to my own culture.

The concert was their 20th Anniversary Celebration, and it took place in what is perhaps the loveliest performance facility on the planet, Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion. Pritzker is beautiful to be sure, but it's also somewhat intimidating in its vastness, holding upwards of 12,000 people. Believe me, I've been to plenty of concerts there when a mere 3,000 or so show up and it can feel like a ghost town. So that was the challenge - go from zero awareness to a crowd of at least 6 or 7,000 in 11 weeks.

As a city owned venue, Pritzker Pavilion exists as a public service, presenting almost all of it's shows for free. It has been showcasing "world music" since it opened in 2004, mostly because of the efforts of the city's former Cultural Affairs program director. Heck, one of its first ever shows (after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of course) was an ad-hoc ensemble dubbed the Chicago Immigrant Orchestra made up of, yes, the city's finest ethnic musicians from its many communities. Those concerts are mostly gone now, and I miss the way the ethnic group represented on stage would show up en masse, joined by world music aficionados like myself, all of us in joyful communion for a couple of hours.

I won't bore you with details of my job but I will say this: Once we got rolling, the support and enthusiasm from the Latino community was a wonder to behold. In the hostile environment of 2014 America, where immigrants are scorned and children are deported back to their murderous homelands,  the prospect of a proudly Mexican-American music ensemble performing downtown on the city's most beautiful showcase (and a tourist magnet to boot) ignited a joy and anticipation that was nearly unquenchable.

photo: Scott Pollard
Some of you may know that I'm a freelance writer specializing in music coverage, and one of the pleasures of that endeavor is researching the artist that I'm writing about to better understand the context of their music. I do the same for my marketing clients. If I know what motivates them, then I can better tell their story. I began my Sones de México work with a series of long interviews with Juan Díes, one of their founders. One of the things I quickly learned was that Chicago was very much chosen on purpose as the place to start the group, not only because of the flourishing Mexican arts community, but also because of Chicago's broader identity as a city built by hard working immigrants. They were soon collaborating with Irish folk, blues, jazz and classical musicians to explore commonalities among cultures.

Unlike my father, I have been lucky to never spend a day on a factory floor or driving a bus. Despite this, though, I proudly self-identify as both blue collar and immigrant. When I taste Mexican food, I'm also tasting the Czech food of my childhood, and my parent's childhood, and their parents before them. When I go back to my old southwest side neighborhood and see that it's mostly Latino, it feels like it hasn't changed at all, still filled with immigrants and the children of immigrants, working hard to build a decent life.

Photo: Omar Torres-Kortright
As Sones de México was nearing the end of their astounding concert before an equally astounding crowd of 10,000 people, mostly Mexican but with a good chunk of other nationalities as well, they played a song I knew they were going to play because I had the set list. That knowledge, however, in no way prepared me for the wave of emotion I was about to feel. Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land has sometimes been called America's second national anthem, and I personally prefer it to the frankly militaristic Star Spangled Banner. "This land is your land..." Juan Díes said in English, pointing to the crowd, "... this land is my land", touching his chest. "Esta tierra es tuya." And then, "Para
todos los inmigrantes", for all the immigrants. And with that, they launched into their rollicking norteño arrangement of this beautiful song. Norteños are polkas, really, the musical result of Czech and German immigrants settling in Mexico and Texas 150 years ago, meeting both the indigenous people and the Spanish immigrants who arrived before them, sharing what they knew, sharing something that I knew from all those Bohemian weddings I attended when my cousins got married.

Photo: Dayna Calderon

For all the immigrants, indeed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A little relief

It's been something of a grim spring and summer in Chicago. People are being shot and killed at an alarming rate. Monday morning headlines have taken on the regularity of box scores or opening weekend movie grosses. They are just that dependable.

Much of this carnage has been taking place in a concentration of poverty stricken neighborhoods where historical patterns of segregation going back over half a century have all but assured that those neighborhoods stay poor and violent. Rogers Park, where I live, has suffered a bit too, though nothing on the grand scale of parts of the south and west sides. I live in a "mixed" neighborhood in every sense of the word. There is a vast diversity of incomes, races and cultures. There is also a pronounced strain of progressive politics and community engagement that dates back to the 1970s. We've been gentrified, suffered setbacks, and re-gentrified. That progressive streak keeps the gentrification from getting out of control and, at the same time, keeps the violence mostly in check. It's a delicate balance, but one that we are generally pretty good at. This year, though, it began to feel that the violence, even here, was making a comeback.

People are on edge.

Devon & Glenwood, July 12
Hell, I'm on edge. Just a little over a week ago, on a Saturday afternoon, a man was shot and killed on Devon Avenue, just kitty-corner from a hip farm-to-table restaurant that I often eat at. I have no doubt that at least a few diners were still finishing up their brunch on the patio. I heard about it before the media reports broke because my girlfriend was on her way to my place in her car, and a bevy of police vehicles blocked her way. When she asked an officer what happened, the reply was (and I'm paraphrasing here), "One gang banger killed another."

Not quite. The gang member might have been gunning for a rival, but his indiscriminate hail of bullets found someone else. Later on, I learned that our alderman, who was doing some political canvassing right around the corner, heard the shots and saw the killer running away. My girlfriend, because she's chronically late to most engagements, was not in the middle of this. But she could have been.

A couple days later, I was walking up to a cafe that I often go to for both the quality of their coffee and the community engagement that they practice. It's a very cool place and is located on Howard Street, which is still trying to shake a decades old reputation for shadiness and danger. Someone was shot on Howard just a few months ago.

That's when the edge got me. There's no dramatic punctuation to this part of the story, just the realization of the creeping unease that I was feeling walking this same street I have walked a hundred times.

Celebrate Clark Street

This isn't what I was thinking about last night, though. Because last night was the conclusion of an annual party that we throw called Celebrate Clark Street. Here is a festival that indeed celebrates everything that is good about Rogers Park, namely, its stunning diversity. It's about music and food and culture and dancing. It's a profoundly family affair. I've gone for so many years I almost take it for granted, but this year it felt especially powerful. My girlfriend remarked that attendance seemed higher than previous years. Another friend, a Mexican-American who lives in Lincoln Square and was visiting my 'hood for the first time, was most impressed by the family atmosphere.

Thousands of people gathered along a three block stretch of Clark Street, and the availability of cheaply priced Modelo Especial and Dos XX assured that many of them, including myself, were fairly well inebriated. There were definitely a lot of people acting the fool. But there wasn't a single fight. And nobody got shot. By the time Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca played their final notes for an impromptu conga line that featured, improbably, a life size cutout of the World's Most Interesting Man, I was exhausted, sweaty, elated and, I realized, relieved.

Ricardo Lemvo, sweaty dancers, the World's Most Interesting Man

Collectively, it was what we needed. Rogers Park residents have been holding their breath and treading cautiously for months. And I'm certainly not implying that being alert to possible danger is not an essential component to urban life. It is, every single damn day. But another essential component is community, and still another, hope.

Rogers Park has plenty of those, too. I wouldn't live anywhere else.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Summer in the City

There's something about summer in Chicago that, for me anyway, brings out the multicultural mélange that makes living here a wonderful thing. A couple of factors are really bringing that to the fore this year. First, there was the awfulness of the polar vortex winter combined with a rather dreary and rainy spring. This one-two punch has kept me indoors a lot, but starting around the middle of June sunny, warm days became more common than the other kind. It was time to break out.

The other thing that started in the middle of June was the World Cup. Despite all the well deserved controversy leading up to the Cup (FIFA corruption, political corruption, you-name-it corruption), I've been hopelessly hooked since the games began. I confess that I'm a relative newbie to futbol, having first gotten excited during the 2010 Cup in South Africa. This year, though, Univision (By all means watch the games in Spanish, even if you don't understand a word. It's a lot more fun than ESPN.) is getting a serious workout on my TV. Catching broadcasts in public is fun as well. The phenomenon that is the Cup can leave even the most isolated individual feeling part of a larger global community. Whether your loyalties lies with Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Germany or the United States, there is a party somewhere. I keep seeing this guy walk past my house (I'm pretty sure it's the same guy) with a large flag flowing behind him. The thing is, it's never the same flag. One day it's Spain, the next Switzerland, the next Brazil. I don't know where he's going, but I may follow him the next time he comes by.

So, let me tell you about my weekend.

It started quietly enough at home on Friday evening, although I did try out a new Italian recipe and watched a Mexican film that I borrowed from the library. I had a number of things that I needed to do during the day on Saturday, but the double hit of two World Cup semi-final games featuring all Latin American teams kind of obliterated that plan, especially the overtime + penalty kick Brazil-Chile nail biter.

Saturday evening began one of those 'only in Chicago' nights. First up was delicious Cuban food on the patio at 90 Miles, although that was a bit rushed because of an approaching summer thunderstorm. Fortunately, by the time we reached our next destination, the storm had passed and the sun was shining.

Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is named after a Puerto Rican abolitionist. The center was screening a documentary about a nearly (and, some argue, deliberately) forgotten figure in Puerto Rican history who, in the mid 19th century, had a vision of a united and free Antillean confederation consisting of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Only Haiti was a nation at the time. Only Puerto Rico remains a colony today. You can see why the schools in Puerto Rico might not want to teach kids about Ramón Emeterio Betances, or El Antillano as he was known.

Segundo Ruiz itself is quite a remarkable place, which I wrote about here last December. The screening was the second one of the day (one of the organizers told me that he spent most of the 3pm screening watching the Colombia-Uruguay game on his iPhone) and both were well attended. The community served by the center probably has divergent thoughts about Puerto Rican independence, but most everybody feels that there is something not quite right about the United States still ruling the island over 100 years after invading it. The film was a thoughtful call to arms, a questioning of why this is still the case. 

I would have loved to stick around for the post screening reception, but we still had one more thing to do.

A local band that I love, Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orchestra, was opening for Chicha Libre, a band from Brooklyn that mines some of the same Peruvian and Colombian sources for inspiration. That was an irresistible double bill, so we we're off to Martyrs, a rock club in the North Center neighborhood. We unfortunately arrived near the end of Dos Santos' set, but managed to catch 4 songs. They were on fire, and I'm glad they'll be playing again in a few weeks at a street festival in my neighborhood. Chicha Libre was awesome, and we ran into some Peruvian friends who welcomed them as heroes. I'm getting up there in age a bit, but Chicha Libre had me dancing at the foot of the stage for well over an hour.  Exhausted and sweaty, we finally stumbled home at 1:30am.

Sunday is a day of rest, but the Mexico-Netherlands game demanded that the rest be had over tequila sunrises and huevos con chorizo at a Mexican restaurant, so there we were meeting a friend at the bar at 10:30 the next morning. Could it be a coincidence that one of the stars of El Tri is named Dos Santos? Mexico ultimately lost in a heartbreaking finish, but for 88 minutes I was in the happiest place in the world. Well, outside of Mexico City.  Costa Rica relieved some of the sadness with their surprise win over Greece later that day.

Monday is work day, but looky here, it's a short week because of the 4th of July holiday and Brazil faces Colombia on Friday afternoon. There's this little Brazilian bar I know and I hear a samba band will be there...

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Jorge Drexler, continued.

I had the opportunity last summer to enjoy a concert here in Chicago by the Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler. You can read about that here if you like. The show was in an intimate venue and, for the most part, Drexler performed solo. I suspect that decision was based as much on economic factors as artistic. Taking a band on the road is expensive, and it seems that the middle-aged Drexler has no deep seated drive to conquer the North American market. His infrequent tours in the U.S. are, I think, designed to reward his loyal fans who, sadly, are not vast in number in this part of the world.

I'm hoping that all changes with the promotion of his new album, Bailar en la Cueva. It was recorded in Bogatá with members of Bomba Estéreo, who are a hot band of youngsters that do tour here frequently. I reviewed the album for Agúzate, and in the course of my research learned of a concert in Buenos Aires where the reviewer was surprised and delighted by the liveliness and sheer dancability of the show, which featured a full seven member band, including a horn section.

So, here's my selfish request: After reading this review, go immediately to iTunes or wherever you get your music and purchase the album. Then tell all your friends to do the same. Perhaps if Drexler's record company sees all the activity, they'll invest the money to bring that whole band to Chicago.

That's not asking too much, is it?

An excerpt of the Agúzate review is below. You can read the rest by clicking here.

... With his new recording, Bailar en la Cueva, Drexler took an entirely new approach. If you are surmising from the title that this is a danceable album, you would be correct. Drexler lives in Spain, but when it came time to record he would often return to Montevideo and producer Juan Campodónico of Bajofondo. This time around, he decamped to Bogotá, which seems to be turning into the center of the rhythmic universe. He worked with Mario Galeano of Frente Cumbiero and Ondatrópica to record the basic tracks and invited guests like Ana Tijoux (who has been spending a lot of time in Colombia herself) and Bomba Estéreo to contribute. He took these tracks back to Madrid and his production team, who built the songs and arrangements from there. The result is a danceable collection of songs that retain the lyrical potency we’ve come to expect.

... “Universos paralelos” is the album’s centerpiece for two reasons. First, it was released several weeks before the rest of the album, and thus has had lots of time to insinuate its way into my consciousness. I just checked my iPod – I’ve played it 27 times in the last 2 months. Yes, it’s that good. Lyrically, it’s a wistful observation of love lost, and it features a verse by Ana Tijoux about 2 ½ minutes in that tells, well, the other side of the story. It’s one of those moments when, like on a hip-hop record, the 12 bars from the guest rapper takes a good song and thoroughly elevates it to another level.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

'Friends' and friends, 'Likes' and likes

A lot of us, it seems, have a conflicted relationship with Facebook.

There's no getting around its benefits. I myself use it practically as my primary news source. Whether it's NPR or WBEZ or Mother Jones or Al Jazeera, every news outlet has a Facebook presence and I hear from them several times a day. When it comes to my personal obsessions, blogs like Colorlines, The Root, Havana Times, Eater and Ask a Mexican post a steady stream of updates. Facebook helps me keep track of my beloved New Orleans through the pages of WWOZ, Kermit Ruffins and Antoine's Restaurant as well as the personal pages of friends who live there. My day is brightened by beautiful photographs posted at Antigua Guatemala and Playas Boricuas. Writers I admire like Junot Díaz and Walter Mosley share their thoughts on Facebook. Of course musicians and performance spaces and cultural organizations and music bloggers all have their own pages. Even my own city is somehow closer, with neighborhood pages and even regular reports from my alderman.

And, of course, I'll use Facebook to get more people to read this.

And then there's my friends. That's a bit of a strange category, yes? For every one of my genuine real-life-really-like to-spend-time-with friends, there are nine more who are casual acquaintances or people I've met along the way or people who are 'friends with' my friends.  By and large, I imagine that they are good people, just not friends in the traditional sense. But that one in ten... it's simply wonderful to hear from them about the contours of their daily lives. Especially gratifying to hear from are the ones, because of divergent paths, I don't often see in the flesh and blood world.

I've been on Facebook for, well, a long ass time. I've also managed pages for a small handful of arts organizations. And perhaps I should have taken it as a sign a couple of weeks ago when I launched my own professional  business page and on the same day I came across a video entitled The Innovation of Loneliness in an article called Here's What Facebook is Doing to Your Brain. (Naturally, I saw it on Facebook, and when you follow the link to the website a pop-up asks you to share it on, well, you know...)  It's one of those typically geeky things full of animated line drawings and a narration that argues the interconnectedness we feel in a social media network is a technologically superior but humanly inferior substitute for real life conversations that are, by their very definition, quite limited in number.

The video deployed science to affirm a position I've long held, that there is a certain amount of artifice inherent in a Facebook profile. That's not to say deception, although I'm sure there's some of that too. It simply means that we have the power of editing at our command, and thus the persona we present on Facebook is shaped by this more than it would be in an uncontrolled environment like, say, over drinks in a bar. Still, most of us are pretty honest, and what we choose to share is a reflection of what we care about. We put stuff up there, then hope for likes and comments. When they don't come, well, I think that is what the video is getting at when it speaks of the innovation of loneliness. After a while, I think, we start to make choices based on our craving for likes, or, to put it another way, our need for validation. Sentimentality is good, as are pictures. Combine them both and voilà!, you have likes.

And, by and large, that's fine. Who doesn't want to be popular? Who willingly shows their bad side if they can avoid it? Who doesn't want to share that beautiful sunset or tropical hideaway or hang out with friends or social injustice we observe or band we really like with others? It's simply another way of saying, "I am here. I matter." Yes, we want the gratification of a like, but if it doesn't always come, c'est la vie

One of the roots of our ambivalence about Facebook is knowing that it is tracking our every move so that a small handful of people can get very rich. Thus, the periodic brouhaha about privacy settings and so on. But here's the thing: Like airport security, those settings are a bit of a ruse to make us feel safer. Meanwhile, we assiduously go about tagging our text and photo postings so that more people see them and maybe get us a few more likes, temporarily easing the craving. Like any highly monetized drug, the hit is short lived. By then, though, Facebook has the data and is already packaging it for advertisers. And we're on to our next post.

So, that's the backdrop for the launch of my professional Facebook page. And if I learned anything in a very short time, it's that the shit gets real when you try to consciously position yourself and your service as something vital on social media. It's no longer simply "Hi, I think _____ is cool / interesting / funny, what do you think?"  All of a sudden, those likes become simultaneously more and less than those cravings. They become measurements of your success. And when they don't come, you are puzzled and maybe even a bit needy. I'm left wondering why people who are my Facebook friends haven't liked my Facebook page. It feels personal, even though it's the farthest thing from it. And the reality is, a bit over one in ten of my friends has liked my page, so the numbers make sense. The really horrifying thing, though, is that I'm spending more time than ever in the technologically superior but considerably less human virtual world, thus compounding the unease that I'm feeling.

Lady Gaga was by no means the first person to deploy the fame monster metaphor. And certainly what we are seeking on Facebook is some kind of fame, however modest. But I don't think of Facebook as a monster. More of a devil, seductive and full of promise. Be careful what you wish for.

Monday, May 12, 2014


Some of you may know that I do research and write program notes for the Chicago Sinfonietta. Their final concert of their 2013-14 season deals with how we maintain our cultural identity, even if we are, through choice or otherwise, many miles and generations removed from the places we call home. I thought I'd reproduce those notes here, as I found the research fascinating and rewarding. Always learning, always learning...

Read on.

As both individuals and members of society, people are on a perpetual quest for identity. It brings order and perhaps even a sense of comfort to know who we are and what our place in the universe is. There are many ways to take measure of such things, among them what we do for a living and where we choose to live, what political or religious beliefs we adhere to, how we think about race, gender or sexual orientation. I would argue, though, that perhaps the strongest identifiers are those that have to do with culture and history.

For the final concert of their 2013-14 Season, the Chicago Sinfonietta looks at how traditions of art and culture define our sense of who we are as well as the way those traditions both connect us to our heritages and inform our present day lives. To do so, we look to two very different societies connected only by the Silk Road, China and Eastern Europe.  They’ll perform contemporary works that are deeply tied to their respective ethnic traditions that simultaneously say something new, and in the process perhaps share a bit of knowledge and cultural pride with those who are willing to listen.  

This journey of discovery starts in Eastern Europe, and more specifically, the small Jewish villages called shtetls that dotted Poland, Romania, the Ukraine and other countries for nearly 800 years, only to disappear almost overnight with the onset of World War II.  Our first two selections are both by the Russian-born composer Ilya Levinson, who is an Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia College Chicago. Levinson immigrated to the United States in 1998, and is a graduate of both the Moscow State Conservatory and the University of Chicago. His identity serves as rich material for his work.

Shtetl Scenes was written by Levinson in 2005 and it is, in his words, a “nostalgia cycle”. He wrote it “about a world that is lost [and] not coming back” and to “give a voice to those who cannot speak.” It was originally written for piano, but the version being performed by the Sinfonietta is a full orchestral arrangement. We will hear two of the cycle’s five movements. The first, Forgotten Dreams, imagines an idealized life in the shtetl, forever lost to the Holocaust, even as that dream slowly slips away with time. The second movement, Freylakh, is a lively dance of the type that was enjoyed in these long gone places, full of rhythm and exuberance. This piece starts slowly and suddenly its pace accelerates to a very fast tempo.

The stage now set, we come to the first of our two concert centerpieces.

Klezmer is a combination of the Hebrew words "kley" (vessel) and "zemer" (melody), describing musical instruments in ancient times. It came to be used to describe Jewish folk musicians sometime in the middle ages.  In the 1970s, “klezmer music” and “klezmer band” were terms coined to describe the revival of Eastern European dance music and Yiddish folk and theater songs. It’s a rollicking sound that shares much with jazz and Latin music.

Maxwell Street Klezmer Band
As a music professor and composer, Levinson’s research interests include klezmer music and the klezmer idiom in contemporary concert music. He was asked to compose a klezmer-based orchestral work in 1998 by Phil Simmons, the artistic director of the Linclonwood Chamber Orchestra. Because most klezmer tunes are a short 3 or 4 minutes in length, Levinson quickly settled on the genre of rhapsody. This allowed him to build a concert-length piece out of a series of exciting musical episodes, much like such works as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody.   Thus was born the Klezmer Rhapsody.

Once Levinson determined the form, he set about introducing the more dissonant harmonic and contrapuntal practices of the 20th century in the work, using these to break up the structure, rhythms and harmonies of the klezmer melodies. All the themes of the piece are original, but they were composed using certain rhythmic, melodic and harmonic idioms of klezmer music, and thus intended to bring to mind traditional melodies. He worked closely with the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band’s musical director Alex Koffman to insure the work’s authenticity, and it premiered in 1999 as an orchestral piece with Koffman as violin soloist. The story of Klezmer Rhapsody, however, doesn’t end there.

Levinson later arranged the work for violin and klezmer band sans orchestra and this version appears on the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band’s 2005 album Old Roots New World. Tonight, the Chicago Sinfonietta premieres a brand new version for klezmer band and orchestra. For this new arrangement, Levinson has thoroughly reworked and re-conceptualized the piece to take advantage of the dynamic interplay between the two ensembles. In this version, there is a bit of a musical joke going on, as the orchestra “learns” about klezmer and the band alternately supports or makes fun of their efforts. By the end of the piece, though, both ensembles speak in a unified voice.

Maestro Mei-Ann Chen is, as you might guess, no stranger to Asian music, but she is also someone who has rigorously mastered Western classical music as well.  The very first time she ever led the Chicago Sinfonietta, in October of 2009, her program paired two works from contemporary Chinese composers with works from Ravel and Rachmaninoff.  She might very well be the perfect conductor to introduce the evening’s third featured work, Identity: Zhongshang Zhuang, to Chicago audiences.
Su Chang
Identity combines the musical traditions of Western and Chinese culture in a piece that is accessible to international audiences. A romantic orchestral concerto setting provides the backdrop for the guzheng, a Chinese stringed instrument that is plucked and strummed like a harp. The instrument, which is nearly 3800 years old, is an ancestor to the Japanese koto, Korean gayagaeum and Vietnamese đàn tranh.  Its mesmerizing timbre and lightning agility blend the familiar and the exotic, and Identity showcases its unique sound. Tonight’s soloist, Su Chang, traveled to Chicago from China for this performance.
The work is a collaboration between Chinese producer and composer Victor Cheng and American composer Michael Gordon Shapiro, and as such, Identity bears the musical signature of both Eastern and Western musical traditions. Cheng composed the core themes and established the direction of the piece. The Los Angeles-based Shapiro, a graduate of the film scoring program at the University of Southern California, also has a graduate degree in music composition from New York University and a background in writing music for video games. Both of these fields demand a high degree of story and character-related musical skill. He took Cheng’s themes (and detailed story line) and scored them for orchestra and, of course, the guzhang.

Identity tells a fictionalized story of a family ripped apart by conflicting loyalties during the time of the Chinese civil war, sending some members into exile.  As such, it is divided into three movements, each of which tells a different part of the story: Peaceful times, conflict, victory, exile, remembrance. The versatility of the guzheng comes into play, as it alternately represents the pastoral beauty of the Chinese landscape, the harsh realities of war and the loneliness and despair that come from separation. Nostalgia, longing and resolution are all conveyed by its tone and timbre. Ultimately, the piece seems to say, even though civil war divides a people along political and philosophical lines, at heart they retain a common identity that survives and perhaps points the way toward reconciliation.

As noted earlier, when Ilya Levinson first approached writing a klezmer piece for orchestra, he immediately thought of the form of a rhapsody, something like Rhapsody in Blue or the Romanian Rhapsody. Thus, it seems only fitting that we close the Identities concert with George Enescu’s most famous piece. Enescu himself was a concert violinist as well as a composer and conductor. He was a bit of a prodigy, graduating from the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 13, continuing on to study in Paris. His compositions were influenced by Romanian folk music, and he was a champion of other Romanian composers. Enescu’s musical curiosity went beyond mere provincialism, though, and included Balinese gamelan and Indian music.

The Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 is the better known of the two he wrote, and he is said to have remarked that it “was just a few tunes thrown together without thinking about it". Though this is an incredible understatement of modesty, that model helped Levinson write Klezmer Rhapsody, based as it is on several traditional klezmer song forms, all of which are short in length. At any rate, Enescu completed the first rhapsody in 1901 at the age of 19. It is ebullient and outgoing, as is fitting for a work that takes its starting point with a folk song whose English translation is "I have a coin, and I want a drink".

This lighthearted work is perhaps the best way to close an evening which, while providing superb and often exhilarating entertainment, also gives us much to ponder about the sometimes tragic vagaries of history and the universal imperative to remain true to both ourselves and our heritage. Through this, we can draw strength from our own identities.