Sinfonietta’s “Dia de los Muertos”

Audience members embarked on a musical journey that traveled through the dark reaches of the human soul to a light and hopeful mood when the Chicago Sinfonietta presented its seventh annual Dia de los Muertos concert at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 31 at the Symphony Center (220 S. Michigan Ave.)

The program, which honors the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday, paired classical works with spooky silent films from the Chicago Film Archives.

Music Director and Conductor Mei-Ann Chen kicked off the evening in rousing style, leading the orchestra in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a homage to Chicago’s home team — the Cubs — standing in this year’s World Series.


Sinfonietta Conductor Mei-Ann Chen (Nagarkatti)

Once the audience settled down, the annual favorite concert began with Golijov’s passionate “Last Round,” evocative of a fight for life in a losing battle, with two string quartets doing metaphorical battle with each other. This was followed by the overture to Beethoven’s tremendous “Coriolan,” which featured themes of life, death, and transcendence.

Next, darkness danced across the screen with the first of two silent films, provided by the Chicago Film Archives, shown to the accompaniment of the foreboding strains of an early version of version of “Night on Bald Mountain” (made famous by Disney’s Fantasia).

During the second half of the concert, the mood became more lighthearted, beginning with contemporary composer Carlos Rafael Rivera’s “Popol-Vuh,” a musical interpretation of an ancient Mayan creation story. The piece’s four movements progressed through a shifting soundscape tinged with sadness, but also hope.


“Dia de los Muertos” audience members (Nagarkatti)

The second half continued with “Danse Macabre,” a jaunty work depicting skeletons and the spirits of the dead who come out to play on Halloween night. Death plays the fiddle, summoning the dead to dance. A 1922 silent film by the same name was presented with this piece, courtesy of the Chicago Film Archives. The film featured well-known Chicago dancer and choreographer Ruth Page in the role of “Love.”

The dance of life and death continued with the Chicago premiere of “PizziCuban Polka,” which started out with a plucked violin and riotously erupted into a celebratory mood familiar to anyone who has heard the mambo.

The concert ended with “Sones de Mariachi” by Blas Galindo, an upbeat tribute to indigenous Mexican folk songs.

Prior to the concert and during the intermission, the audience was invited to participate in several engagement activities relating to the evening’s theme. These included a costume contest for those in their finest Dia attire, masks, and a photo booth. Audience members also enjoyed face painting, marigold making, and an “ofrenda,” or altar, where people could celebrate their lost loved ones.

— Shanti Nagarkatti

Big Windy Man

img_0507a2webUpon graduating from high school in the 1950s, Big Windy Man traveled from his native West Virginia to Columbus, OH, the northern metropolis where his sister lived. He arrived with talent, ambition and a homegrown appreciation for Tennessee Ernie Ford.

“He sung about the coal mines,” says Big Windy. “That’s where I grew up.”

After he won a few singing contests at the nearby 502 Club, Windy joined a band, and “traveled on the road with them a little bit.”

In 1965, he came to Chicago and began playing “all over the city.” He favors the chrome passage under the Wabash Bridge.

“I like the acoustics and I like the people,” he says. “They’re real cool, man.”

— Daniel Patton

Miro Swing jazzes up the River Walk

img_8995webMiro Swing is a five-piece Gypsy jazz band that frequently perfroms at Cyrano’s on the River Walk. “We thought this was a cool place to come and play music after work,” says guitarist Stephen Kelly.

Although formed only a few months ago, the musicians have gigged together in various lineups for years, and they share a passion for the genre made famous by legendary Beligian-born French guitarist of Romani descent, Django Reinhardt.

(Pictured, l to r: Stephen Kelly, Lee-Ann Sharp, Red Weber, Teri Foster, John Garza. Photo by Daniel Patton.)

— Daniel Patton

Millennium Park’s world of sound

The Millennium Park Summer Music Series is difficult to define. Afrobeat, Kiwi Fusion, Brazilian Funk, and Psychedelic Congolese give it an international flavor; but American blues, indie, and soul bring it all back home. Throw in gospel, folk, and samba and it becomes impossible to tell exactly what the bi-weekly concerts at the Pritzker Pavilion will sound like. Curator David Chavez is fine with that.

David Chavez - Juan F Hernandez-web

David Chavez (photo: JF Hernandez)

“Right now, what’s happening with music is that the idea of genres — and borders within genres — is sort of fading,” says the Logan Square native. “For example, the relationship between Sub-Saharan African music and rockin’ blues is strong. The trick is keeping a balance.”

Mr. Chavez has programmed the series since last year, when it became the singular groovechild of the city’s two former Millennium Park weekly music events: Downtown Sound and Music Without Borders. He takes in concerts, researches reviews, and attends conferences to help “provide the best music possible without being stuck.”

This summer’s performances have included New York indie rockers Blonde Redhead, legendary funk saxophonist Maceo Parker, and London Afrobeat artist Femi Kuti, son of Fela Kuti, one of the greatest artistic and political forces of the last century. Each act filled the pavilion with friendly crowds enjoying what were likely the funkiest twilight picnics in the country.


Femi Kuti performing at Millennium Park.

Mr. Chavez’ has kept this kind of beat throughout his career. It began with a “hobby of DJing back in college at UIC” that was heavy on house music before graduating to world music and, later, funk and soul.

His influence within the Chicago scene expanded along with his tastes. He became program director for the South Loop’s dynamic cultural club, The Hothouse, incorporated live music into his DJ sets, and formed “Sound Culture,” a company that produces world music events throughout the city.

Now, with the official title of Program Coordinator of Creative Industries for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, he says his job has become “a series of things.”

“A lot of it is having strong relationships with booking agents and managers and planning out far in advance to know when the artist is touring again. It’s constant communication with their tour managers about all their needs.”


José Tapia and family enjoy a concert

Among the performers scheduled for August are the Congolese psychedelic dance band Mbongwana Star on the 11th and multi-genre Chicago instrumental group Tortoise on the 25th.

A few years back, Mr. Chavez helped launch Chicago Made, a showcase of homegrown creative talent that makes regular appearances at festivals like South by Southwest in Austin, TX.

Although his efforts have helped enhance the Windy City’s reputation as a metropolitan musical motherlode, Mr. Chavez is quick to credit the artists and the “vibrant scene” for making it happen.

“People really recognize that Chicago is a really creative city and a great place to launch a career,” he says. “There are so many music rooms. The caliber is high. You can go out any night of the week and hear amazing music.”

And when it comes to Monday and Thursday nights in the summertime, he makes a good case for choosing the Millennium Park Summer Music Series.

“It’s one of the most beautiful settings for live music performances in the world,” he says. “I talk to a lot of artists who perform all over the world, and this is one of the best, according to them. Outdoor, free, skyline. You really can’t beat it.”

— Daniel Patton

Christian Cohran

IMG_0315web3Ronald Christian’s pitch perfect high notes and Malik Cohran’s five-string bass lines draw more than mere appreciation from passersby on Michigan Avenue.

Whether they’re performing a stripped down rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or accompanying a prerecorded instrumental track of “My Girl,” the duo lays down a groove that frequently inspires people to dance on the sidewalk.

— Daniel Patton

Chicago’s Legacy Drumline

IMG_7370web2Terry Ward, Stephen Thompson, and Eli Brown are three of the five musicians in the Legacy Drumline, a percussion group that plays corporate events and cultural functions throughout the city. Their resume includes performances at Loyola University, the Knickerbocker Hotel and the Target store on 87th and Cottage.

When they’re not booked for a show, Legacy likes to play for people on Michigan Ave, 99th and Halsted, and 79th and State. “That’s where most of our material got originated,” says Eli. “That’s when we really started learning each other’s talent.”

— Daniel Patton | Staff Writer

Chicago Traffic Jam

The Chicago Traffic Jam is a quintet of former solo street performers who discovered that they play well together. The crowds that form when they jam near the McCormick Bridgehouse or the Cultural Center seem to agree. On a recent sunny afternoon, the band was making hips shake in every direction with a tight mix of old school soul, funky jazz and a dose of rock-n-roll.TRAFFIC1-01

Pictured, left to right: Bill Nevin on bass, Damian Rose on saxaphone, Mark Johnson on drums, David Walker on trumpet, and Ian Walsh on guitar.

— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer

Larry Bluesman

Guitarist Larry Bluesman was born in Mississippi 67 years ago and moved to Chicago with his family when he was “about ten years-old.” Inspired by the guitarists who played in church functions that his mother used to take him to, he eventually joined a travelling church choir and studied music at the Chicago Conservatory.

IMG_9472a_webThese days, he works as a professional touring musician.

When not on the road, Mr. Bluesman performs in the Jackson Red Line station on Friday mornings.

“I like pleasing people,” he says. “That’s why I’m a musician.”   

— Daniel Patton

Singer / guitarist Vincent Johnson

IMG_9394webSinger / guitarist Vincent Johnson performs in front of the Art Institute on almost every Saturday of the year, including those occasions when Chicago gets “all four seasons in a day,” as he noted during a snow shower on a recent sunny afternoon.

The native Chicagoan is a self-taught musician inspired by the bluesmen who migrated to the city from the Mississippi Delta, and his axe of choice is a BB King style hollow body.

When not performing, Mr. Johnson operates V&J Computer Services, which he founded 20 years ago, and works as a substitute teacher.

— Daniel Patton

Vibraphonist Preyas Roy

IMG_8856bVibraphonist Preyas Roy started playing piano and drums in his upstate New York hometown when he was eight years-old. A few years later, when he was “halfway into high school,” he “sorta eased into vibraphone.”

These days, the University of Chicago graduate travels most weekdays from his home in Hyde Park to the corner of Michigan and Randolph where he enjoys playing “because I can really cut loose.” To hear his music online, visit his YouTube page. — Daniel Patton.

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