1. Chicago Symphony Orchestra Enters the 20th Century
This year the Chicago Symphony Orchestra took the bold step of including more 20th-century music in its concert programming. With the 21st century now as imminent as a midconcert coughing attack in the mezzanine, maestro Daniel Barenboim apparently thought it was time to begin playing more music from the last, oh, 95 years or so. Not surprisingly, many of the CSO's music-loving patrons reacted as if this were the reckless, harebrained quirk of an out-of-town upstart and have written in large numbers to complain about being force-fed modern music. It's easy to understand their anger. Much 20th-century music is inappropriate as a backdrop for the snoozing, program reading, and nose foraging that is so much a part of an evening at Orchestra Hall. Still, playing modern music should help the orchestra function as a vibrant, vital part of the city's artistic life instead of a dusty repository of 19th-century aesthetic values. It should also help the institution compete more effectively for the dollars being spent by younger, more adventurous music lovers at jazz and rock clubs.
2. Ensemble InterContemporain Visits Northwestern University
If some CSO musicians and patrons balk at the thought of modern music, the Ensemble InterContemporain takes to it like barracuda take to a school of mackerel. Led by Pierre Boulez, the ensemble is among the world's most rabid champions of 20th-century classical music. Although they favor the more eggheaded aspects of modern music, their performance at Northwestern University on November 14 was anything but aloof and rational. Particularly impressive were their vigorous renditions of Edgard Varese's Integrales, with its crisp attack and powerful masses of sound, and Gyorgy Ligeti's Concerto for Piano, which combined mesmerizing, ever-shifting orchestral colors with a dense barrage of notes from the piano soloist. It was especially nice to hear this music played with enthusiasm and verve rather than the capable indifference of players under duress.
3. Smashing Pumpkins Go Nationwide
The enormous success of the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream brings two potential blessings for those involved in the Chicago music scene. First, the music-industry attention it has focused on the Chicago area may help more local talent get some long overdue recognition. Second, it may put a stop to head Pumpkin Billy Corgan's endless whining about how his band was snubbed and ignored for years in Chicago. The oft-interviewed bandleader never misses a chance to point out in great detail that the Pumpkins weren't embraced as stars in their hometown right from the start. Corgan apparently isn't aware that rejection and abject struggle are the norm rather than the exception for people engaged in creative work. Nor does he seem to understand that with the Pumpkins' first record selling a reported 300,000 copies and Siamese Dream debuting in Billboard's top ten, folks may find it hard to muster the requisite sympathy.
4. The Emergence of HotHouse
Chicago now has more jazz clubs than at any time in recent memory. Unfortunately, most of them limit themselves to the all-too-familiar retro stylings of late bop imitators or the tepid effervescence of cocktail lounge tinkling. However HotHouse, at 1565 N. Milwaukee, has emerged in the past year as a major venue for contemporary jazz in all its many forms. From local wizards like 8 Bold Souls to international legends like Steve Lacy, HotHouse offers the public a varied palette of new jazz and experimental music in a casual setting at an affordable price. The club has also helped worthy but less well-known bands like the Vandermark Quartet build their reputations by providing them with extended bookings. Cutting-edge jazz has been a music perennially in search of a home in Chicago. It's a relief to know that for now (and hopefully indefinitely) it has found one.
5. The New Zealand Invasion
For more than a decade New Zealand bands have been producing some of the finest rock 'n' roll in the world, one of the reasons being their obliviousness to the trends that afflict too much American alternative rock. For many years, alas, insufficient funding kept all but a very few of those bands from visiting the U.S., let alone Chicago. In 1993, however, an unprecedented number of NZ bands came through town to demonstrate their remarkable songcraft and deliver some refreshingly grunge-free shows. The Bats, Bailter Space, Chris Knox, Straitjacket Fits, Peter Jefferies, the JPS Experience, the Verlaines, and Alastair Galbraith were among those who made it to Chicago and with a wide variety of approaches proved that great rock music can be made without chic irony and studied coolness.
6. Paris 1919 Revisited
Finally there was a nonlocal musical highlight from the past year that merits mention. Twenty years ago, John Cale released his third record, Paris 1919. Over the next decade and a half, he went on to record a body of work as bracing, challenging, and unconventional as any in rock. Sometimes his records gleamed with classic pop nuggets; sometimes they made disturbing excursions into the avant-garde; still other times they rattled with an ear-withering metallic punk. You never knew what to expect, but each Cale record was a new direction, a new format, and most have to be counted artistic successes. The Paris 1919 LP was a mostly acoustic outing: contemplative, restrained, almost pastoral, and one of the most beautiful and most overlooked records ever made. Unavailable for many, many years, it was reissued last month by Warner Bros. to commemorate its 20th anniversary. In a year that saw a large number of interesting and unusual reissues, the reappearance of this gem stands as one of the most important.