The Artists

For Your Consideration: Craig Hella Johnson plants a fencepost to welcome Matt Shepard

Several weeks ago, I was getting some work done while on a flight from Orlando back to Chicago. Part of my agenda was to digest the libretto of Craig Hella Johnson’s poignant oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard. I already owned the Grammy-nominated recording on Harmonia Mundi and had been profoundly moved by it, but this was the first time I had actually read the entire text itself. I was, quite frankly, undone. The plane vanished from my cognizance, along with the din from the overwrought Disney vacation families that dotted the cabin. I sat there with tears streaming down my face. I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to see a startled flight attendant named Tammy. Her eyes softened as she said, “Here’s your Diet Coke, hon.”

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Harmony in Motion: Peter Sellars and Grant Gershon get closer to Him through The Tears of Saint Peter

Harmony in Motion: Peter Sellars and Grant Gershon get closer to Him through The Tears of Saint Peter

“John was looking for a texture for The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” explains Sellars, “and he was going through medieval music and Renaissance music kind of like Igor Stravinsky, looking for music where there’s a very detailed and elaborate harmonic language. John came across Lasso and became so excited. He told both Grant and me to look at Orlando de Lasso.”

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J’Nai Bridges: A mezzo connecting with the moment

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who will be the soloist in Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony at Ravinia on Sunday, August 19, “discovered” her exceptional voice when, in her senior year, she auditioned for the high school choir near her home in Lakewood, WA. When the choir director heard her, Bridges was immediately urged to begin studying professionally.

“My family enjoyed music, all kinds,” Bridges explained during a telephone interview with Ravinia Magazine in late June. “My Dad has a beautiful voice, and he sang with the Sons of Thunder choir at the Allen A.M.E. Church in Tacoma. I began taking piano lessons when I was 5, but no one [in the family] was a professional.” The new adventure of voice lessons became a revelation. “I just loved singing so much,” she said. Even though Bridges was captain of her high school basketball team and had college sports scholarships on the horizon, she audaciously auditioned at top American conservatories and music schools.

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Intense, Beautiful, Devoted: Classical music has long felt the Bern(stein) to speak in political tones

There was a stunning moment in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Celebrating 100 Years of Bernstein” gala this season. Kate Baldwin, on a brief hiatus from her Tony Award–nominated run in Broadway’s revival of Hello Dolly!, took the stage and delivered an ineffably moving rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s Vietnam-era protest song “So Pretty.” This affecting piece, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, was first heard in 1968 at the Broadway for Peace fundraiser co-hosted by Bernstein and Paul Newman. It was performed then by Barbra Streisand with the composer himself at the piano. The song tells of a land far away with golden temples and pretty people with shining hair—who we are told “must die for peace.” The text concludes with “But they’re so pretty, so pretty. / I don’t understand.”

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Key Change: David Foster Embraces a New Muse in a Relatively Major (Broad)way

What Foster is doing is creating his first Broadway musical, a show based on the 1930s’ wide-eyed, Jazz Age flapper animated cartoon character Betty Boop. A creative team of Broadway A-listers has signed on for the project, including director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell, whose work includes the recently premiered Pretty Woman: The Musical, the Gloria Estefan bio-musical On Your Feet, and Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein’s critically acclaimed Kinky Boots (all three of which had their pre-Broadway tryouts in Chicago). Veteran television scribe Sally Robinson is writing the book, and Foster’s score will boast lyrics by Tony Award nominee Susan Birkenhead.

“It’s my first try at Broadway,” Foster says of the musical, whose subject matter demanded a very original story. “There never was a story because [Betty Boop] is a two-minute-at-a-time cartoon. I knew I wanted to make a step toward Broadway and musicals, and honestly Betty Boop was the first person to ask me. [Laughs.] So we had to create the story. It’s currently waiting for the script’s final punch-up. And then hopefully we’ll jump into a reading and then a workshop.”

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Chicago LGBT Honors Tchaikovsky

One of the immortal composers of classical music, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, will join the ranks of such LGBT icons as Alan Turing and Sylvia Rivera with a biographical memorial in Chicago’s award-winning outdoor LGBT History Museum “The Legacy Walk.” Sponsored by Ravinia Festival, Ravinia Board Chairman Jennifer Steans, Illinois State Senator Heather Steans (7th District Democrat), and Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman and husband Jon Teeuwissen, the Tchaikovsky exhibit will be unveiled at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, on the Legacy Walk, which spans 3245–3705 Halsted St., Chicago. Award-winning jazz pianist-composer-accordionist Ben Rosenblum will give a street performance at the dedication and will make his Ravinia debut later that night. A “Dedication Celebration” will follow the installation at Sidetrack, 3349 N. Halsted St., Chicago.

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NYT Gives Ravinia Artists Rave Reviews

Two of Ravinia’s coming artists were given smashing notices in the New York Times last week. Performing on July 28 in the Street Chorus for Mass is Mykal Kilgore, who was hailed “a knockout performance” in Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World at New York City Center. Kilgore was last seen in the Windy City as Simon in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyric Opera. His other theater credits include Motown: the Musical and Hair on Broadway, as well as the first national tour of The Book of Mormon. He has also appeared on screen with roles in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar and The Wiz Live and the film Collateral Beauty.
 
In a review of Tony Award nominee Melissa Errico’s most recent role as Daisy Gamble in On a Clear Daythe paper gushed, “Any chance to hear Errico sing is a chance worth taking.” You have two opportunities to take that chance on September 8, when Errico appears in Ravinia’s most intimate hall in back-to-back performances on the $10 BGH Classics series. Other Broadway luminaries that have performed on the annual series include Jonathan Groff (HamiltonFrozen) and Laura Benanti (Meteor ShowerThe Good WifeNashville). You may never have the chance to see a rising Broadway star this affordably ever again!

11 Facts About SGT. Pepper

Half a century ago years ago, four mop-topped lads from Liverpool released one of the greatest records of all time. Stuffed with classics, from the dreamy psychedelia of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” to the pioneering production of “A Day In The Life,” Sgt. Pepper broke boundaries at every turn. Click here to read 11 facts about the album you have never heard before—you won’t be able to contain your giggles at number five! Sing along to the songs of the The Beatles when Classic Albums Live plays the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album note for note, cut for cut this Saturday night.

30 Under 30 Classical Musicians

Ahead of last week’s Classical BRIT Awards, broadcaster Classic FM published a list of 30 classical artists under age 30 across the instrumental spectrum that have been captivating concert stages, including two of the big winners that night, saxophonist Jess Gillam and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who also made headlines last month with his performance at the royal wedding.

The list contained a few more familiar names: accordionist Ksenija Sidorova, who returns to Ravinia on July 3 in the Martin Theatre after a pair of sellout BGH concerts last summer, and violinist Ray Chen, who makes his own return in the Martin on July 25 following plaudits from his CSO debut at the festival last summer. (“Chen takes a back seat to no fiddler when it comes to lofting long lyrical lines … his fast vibrato lending expressive intensity to the phrasing,” said the Chicago Tribune.)

Also featured were pianists Lucas Debargue, who brought a pair of signature programs to his Chicago debut in BGH in 2016, and Benjamin Grosvenor and Daniil Trifonov, who electrified their Chicago debuts on the same stage in 2013 and 2012 respectively.

Ravinia Celebrates Pride

June is Pride Month, and Ravinia is celebrating all summer long with a diverse lineup of both LGBT stars and allies. Tonight, catch YouTube stars Well-Strung performing universally recognized classical pieces while singing pop music hits from the likes of Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, and other stars for a uniquely engaging experience. Learn more about the “singing string quartet” in an interview with Ravinia Magazine here.

On Sunday, you can go back to “seventeen” and experience the legendary Janis Ian. Additional LGBT artists with upcoming performances include Alan CummingMichael Feinstein, and Boy George. Our Bernstein Centennial celebration will highlight the career of America’s most famous (gay) composer, and we will host the Chicago premiere of Considering Matthew Shepard, a piece that explores the life and death of the gay martyr to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy that spawned the Hate Crimes Act.

Aiming for the Score: Inon Barnatan approaches his canon on the ball

When pianist Inon Barnatan returns to Ravinia on July 21, he’ll be there to extend the history of an institution. The festival has been hosting a high-spirited, evening-long celebration of Tchaikovsky every season for now 40 years. The Russian composer’s tuneful, dramatic ballets and symphonies are among the world’s most beloved classical pieces, and every year since the early ’80s, Ravinia’s “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” has ended with a rousing version of the 1812 Overture, complete with live cannons. This summer, for the first time, the ever-popular event occupies a full weekend, July 21–22, with concerts featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ken-David Masur. The Violin Concerto—with Miriam Fried, the venerable, 25-year lion of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, as soloist—is the centerpiece for July 22, the traditional Sunday concert, and Israeli-born Barnatan is joining the CSO as soloist in the First Piano Concerto.

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Keeping the Faith: Marin Alsop reveals and revels in Leonard Bernstein's everlasting power

“I thought, what I want for the Ravinia audience, if we can pull it off, is somebody who’s going to see the full picture of Bernstein, had a personal relationship with him and can conduct the stuff like crazy. I want somebody who I enjoy talking to. There’s selfishness to it, I guess. I’ve just always found her to be extraordinary,” says Kauffman, who was an artistic administrator with the New York Philharmonic when Alsop made her guest-conducting debut there in December 1999 as part of an Aaron Copland festival.

In addition to holding a succession of conducting posts, including her current roles as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil, Alsop has followed Bernstein’s beat as an articulate spokeswoman and innovative advocate for classical music. She has also been a leading champion of his music; a boxed set of her complete Bernstein recordings on the Naxos label was released earlier this year. As a testament to her multifaceted accomplishments, she is the only conductor to win a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”—an honor she received in 2005.

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Lindsey Stirling: Bowing out of the smoke and mirrors

Once rehearsals began for the new tour, Stirling almost instantaneously realized that it would be quite the experience. “I have never co-headlined with anyone, so I went to an Evanescence show, and it was very different. I think we are definitely going to be looking to take a page out of each other’s books, especially when we see that both ways work,” says Stirling, who is no stranger to crossing performing practices, having finished as the runner-up on Season 25 of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars teamed up with dance pro Mark Ballas. “It will be a different experience for anyone coming to this concert because there will truly be these seamless transitions between rock and electronic and classical. People are going to be blown away.”

Add that to the fact that the tour will be backed by a full orchestra, and it literally gives her a case of the goose bumps. “The orchestra is going to add this amazing layer behind my wooden violin,” says Stirling, who already raises hairs on YouTube, where her audience continues to make her one of the most influential musicians online. “There is a real vibration that you will be able to feel within your soul, especially in an outdoor venue. Physically you will be able to feel it.”

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Bring Me To Life: Evanescence finds immortal synthesis with symphony

Evanescence

“It makes you focus on a completely different part of your performance. I have a lot more stage to truly focus on musicianship, which is cool, but it’s also kind of scary because it’s very vulnerable. There are moments during the show that are very raw and quiet. You just have to embrace that silence and be totally comfortable in your own skin, focus and make something beautiful. I think for me this show is a lot more focused on the emotional side—I can’t help but get choked up almost every night at some point.”

Although Lee is an enthralling entertainer who can command a stage of any size, she’s also incredibly relatable as a songwriter who isn’t afraid to bare her soul on record or before a live audience. Selecting from her catalogue of songs for either incarnation of Synthesis was literally like going back through her diary, from her teens through getting married and becoming a mother in young adulthood, but the symphonic setting and ongoing reactions from listeners finally allowed her to embrace even the oldest entries.

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Snarky Puppy: A Cocktail of Influences Wags the Dog

“We’ve never thought of ourselves as a fusion band, but I understand why people associate us with the genre. As time goes on, though, the sound of the group is moving toward something else. I’m not sure exactly what to call it, but I feel like we all know what it is.”

In other words, fans and curious onlookers alike are best off simply gauging the ever-evolving direction for themselves when Texas-born/New York–based Snarky Puppy makes its Ravinia debut on July 2. League promises a combination of selections from the troupe’s instrumental albums and assurance that they never repeat the same show twice, much of which will be determined upon “the atmosphere, the vibe, the sound, and everything else that is shaping the moment.” And even if it marks the first time the group, which features up to 25 members in regular rotation, has performed at America’s oldest outdoor music festival, longtime Snarky saxophonist Bob Reynolds came up through Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute jazz program during its first year (2000), plus Snarky Puppy is no stranger to Chicago audiences.

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When Opera Went Electric; The Who's Tommy ran a live wire through theater

Turning 50 next year, Tommy has taken on many incarnations. In addition to its original 24-song, double-album format released in May 1969, it was staged in 1972 by the London Symphony Orchestra, starring additional rock luminaries like Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood, and Ringo Starr. In 1975, it became a star-studded, extravagant Ken Russell–directed film with Daltrey fully at the center and also starring Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Ann-Margaret, and a warbling Jack Nicholson. In 1992, Townshend and director Des McAnuff adapted Tommy into a darker, explosive stage musical that went to Broadway and won five Tony Awards. [Actor Michael Cerveris made his Broadway debut in the title role; 10 years later, just before winning his first Tony for Assassins, he starred in Ravinia’s production of Sondheim’s Passion and returned for Sunday in the Park with George and Anyone Can Whistle the following to years.] And in 2017 The Who gave a rare full performance for the Teenage Cancer Trust charity at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

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Well Strung: A Quartet with Entendres of Inspiration

This band’s brand is something unique, indeed. A zip through their albums and YouTube videos reveals an astonishing level of stylistic eclecticism and virtuosity, from fresh-spirited traversals of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to envelope-pushing fusions of Grieg’s First String Quartet with Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” and the down-home vocals of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” merged with bits of Bach. Listen to that last one and try to keep your feet still. “We don’t stick to any one genre,” Bagnell explains, “We pull from both a wide breadth of pop and a wide breadth of classical. We respond to music we like. Good music is good music, and if something speaks to our instrumentation and voices, we go for it.”

The ensemble’s artistic soul is probably best displayed in the pop–classical mashups they have amusingly dubbed “popssicals.” “Our first popssical was Kelly Clarkson mashed with Eine kleine Nachtmusik. They had a similar energy,” Bagnell remembers. “We have another with Taylor Swift and Aaron Copland. There was such joy in the Copland piece and fun in the Taylor Swift.” Sometimes their choices juxtapose in unexpected ways, as in a marvelous amalgam of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria with Radiohead’s “Creep.” “We look for thematic elements, like this deeply religious music mashed up with ‘Creep,’ where a guy speaks about an unattainable woman with this almost obsessive, worshiping quality. They just kind of spoke to each other.”

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Pack Mentality: Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin Howls at the Band’s Unlikely Tracks of Success

Steve Berlin remembers exactly when he first heard the band that would come to define his career. But that first encounter 40 years ago was not a magical one. Things didn’t go so well for Los Lobos that night, and it wasn’t at all clear to Berlin that he would eventually join them and help the band evolve to a place of collective fame and fortune.

In 1978, Berlin was a young musician who’d left his hometown of Philadelphia to make his way into the music scene in Los Angeles. He was a session player and soon-to-be producer when he went to catch a punk show, headlined by Public Image, at an enormous venue. “It was at a boxing arena called the Olympic Auditorium,” Berlin recalls. With his penchant for blunt talk, he quickly adds some colorful descriptors: “It was a real shithole—just a horrific place for anything other than boxing.”

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The Other Adams: Samuel Adams's Music Blends Multifarious Influencers

Several concerts on the just-concluded 2017 Ravinia season were devoted to the music of John Adams in celebration of the American composer laureate’s 70th birthday year. But there is another Adams in town, John’s son Samuel Adams, who is beginning his third and final season as composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Along with co-composer-in-residence Elizabeth Ogonek, Adams is also co-curator of the CSO’s MusicNOW series, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season.

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