Friday, March 9, 2018

Chicago Sinfonietta will present "Hear Me Roar," a celebration of women in classical music


In conjunction with its Project W initiative for gender equity in classical music, Chicago Sinfonietta will present "Hear Me Roar" at 3 p.m. at North Central College's Wentz Concert Hall at 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville, and at 7:30 p.m. March 12 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

Maestro Mei-Ann Chen, who is music director of Chicago Sinfonietta, will conduct. Chicago Sinfonietta  is Chicago’s professional orchestra dedicated to modeling and promoting diversity, inclusion, and both racial and cultural equity in the arts.

The program includes new works "Dance Card," by recent Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon as well as "#MeToo" by Reena Esmail, both commissioned as part of Sinfonietta’s Project W initiative. 

Featured instrumentalists include Carol Dylan, violin; Karen Nelson, violin; Marlea Simpson, viola; and Ann Griffin, cello.

Tickets can be purchased by calling Chicago Sinfonietta at 312- 284-1554 or online at

I had the chance to talk to Esmail, who was born in Chicago, about her music.

Q – Great to talk to you. What is it like being a part of an event like this? How do you think your music fits into "Hear Me Roar"?

It is truly an honor to work with Chicago Sinfonietta and Mei-Ann Chen. In my entire career, I have worked with dozens of male conductors, but only one female orchestral conductor, and that was Mei-Ann, back in 2013 with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra.

Working with her left such an impression on me. She is an incredibly kind, generous and passionate person, and it shows in everything she does, including how she approaches the music she conducts.

It means so much to me to be able to work with her again.

Q – I understand you decided to retitle your composition #MeToo. Why did you decide to retitle it and how do you think it fits into the Me Too movement?

I was writing this piece during the time the #MeToo movement was unfolding. #MeToo bears the title of the social movement that has been exploding across our country during the time I was writing this piece. The movement, created 10 years ago by Tarana Burke as a way to create safe spaces for young women of color, has grown into a movement that has allowed so many women to speak out, contextualize one another’s experiences, and begin to heal.

As a woman composer, I always get asked why there aren’t more women composers. This piece is one response — of many hundreds of responses — to that question. So many of us decide to become composers when we are young women because we fall deeply in love with individual pieces of music.

We listen to them incessantly, we memorize every note of them, we live our lives through the lens of that music. And then at some point, for some of us, as we engage with that music, something devastating happens to us — often by the very person who has introduced us to that music.

We hate ourselves, we blame ourselves, we bury it deep within our psyche — until we hear that piece of music again. It could be at a concert, it could be in a theory class, it could be on the radio. We are powerless to fend off that tidal wave of sensory memory. The very music we once loved becomes a trigger that slowly destroys our love for our art. 

Of course I’m speaking about myself, but I’m also speaking about so many other women I know. That experience is what this piece is about.

I was so filled with rage while I was writing this work. The rage of seeing the injustices that plagued even the strongest, most powerful women among us, the rage of having to relive the worst moments of my own life over and over again, every time I checked facebook or turned on the news.

The rage that as women, some of the strongest bonds we share are forged from the most devastating and corrosive experiences.

Lest this seem like a war cry, I want to say this: I have never known of a truly happy, fulfilled man that has sexually abused a woman. The outcries of #metoo are a symptom of issues that are affecting men. Women are the bystanders who get caught in the crossfire. 

Every day, even as my rage simmers, I have to ask: what is the endgame here? What does a healthy society look like? And how can we put systems in place that truly allow men to address these underlying issues, so that we can create stronger bonds with one another, and build stronger communities with higher standards of accountability to each other?

I look forward to imagining and creating that world together.

Q – Are you familiar with any of the artists or works that will be featured as part of the event? How do you think your work stands beside theirs?

Jennifer Higdon has been an inspiration to me for as long as I've been a composer. I remember over a decade ago, when I had graduated from my undergraduate degree and I was so creatively lost – I kept wondering if I really had what it took to be a composer.

I found this amazing interview in "New Music Box" with Jennifer, where she said that she composed six hours a day, every day. And that instantly snapped me out of my ennui – I realized that it wasn't as much about having raw talent or unequivocally great ideas, or having encouragement or people to believe you could do it.

It was about investing the time to see what I did have to offer, and then working from there. I would literally think to myself, "Jennifer Higdon is composing for six hours today! What the heck are YOU doing?"
It helped a LOT. I'm here today because I began to take my creative practice as seriously as Jennifer takes hers.

Of course, the amount of time and careful attention she has invested in her music over the years is so obvious. There is just this seamless perfection about everything she writes. I am completely floored by how incredible, how intricate, how fresh, how innovative and how soulful her music is. 

I never imagined, back when I was reading that interview that I would ever have the opportunity to share the stage with her in this way. It means everything to me. 

Q – What would you like people to get out of the event? What would you like people to get out of your music in general?

Everyone has such a different experience listening to music, and that is the beauty of music. I hope that my music resonates with my listeners, and that it stirs something in them. 

I love hearing what my listeners are thinking and feeling, and I love knowing if my music meant something to them.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Chicago band Razorhouse releases new album, will perform CD release party at Martyrs'


Over the years, Mark Panick's name has become synonymous with edgy music, whether it was with his post-punk band Bonemen of Barumba or his current project, Razorhouse.

On Feb. 6, Razorhouse released its latest album, "Codex Tres Lingua." To celebrate the release of the album, the band will perform Feb. 23 at Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

Jay O'Rourke and Plastic Crimewave Syndicate also are on the bill. The music starts at 9 p.m. and tickets are $10, available at

I had the chance to talk to the Chicago musician about the new CD.

Q – Great talking to you. Of course, "Codex Tres Lingua" was recently released. In sitting down to make the record, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?

Sometimes the goals you start out with aren’t always the same ones you land with. It did take us just over a year to get this EP done the way we wanted.

Sometimes it just takes longer. I was producing the EP by myself this time which meant a good chunk of the baling and chicken wire assembly was up to me instead of Howie Beno. 

But we took our time; self-releasing allows you that comfort zone. We’re delighted with the combo platter that is "Codex Tres Lingua."

Q – On the album, you cover a song from your band Bonemen of Barumba. What made you want to re-record the song and how do you think it compares with the original version?

We loved [legendary UK DJ] Jon Peel so much and to have him pay attention to that Bonemen record just had us swooning. And, It’s a fun song!

I think we re-tracked it like three times before we were happy; not like its a complicated song, it’s just all about the vibe. I think it’s an honest rendition of the original.

I enjoy listening to the dub mix that producers Peabody & Sherman did, as well. 

Q – I understand the band attacked pigs' heads with axes on stage. What were you trying to convey with your live show?

That was a cabaret-style show up in JoZ, which is now the Metro Chicago offices. We were projecting 16mm soft core from the 1950s over the band while we performed.

And caught up in the spirit of honoring what Q (my partner and keyboard player) called “The Pig of Japan,” he laid into a real pig head with a double edged axe and, in the flickering light, he pulled back the axe but could not see that the pig head was impaled onto the axe blade.

As he swung it again, it flew straight into the audience (the pig head, not the axe (this would be an entirely different conversation had it been the axe)). And, of all places, it ended up in the lap of a young Gregory Curvey from the band Luck of Eden Hall.

That was a fun show! Skinny Puppy played their very first Chicago show there a week later.

Q – You reformed Razorhouse in 2011. What made you want to reform the band and what do you think of the current lineup?

Well, an old friend, Danny McGuinness, who was starting up an indie label called Heatshield Records, asked if I had any current demos. I gave him a few things I was working on and he encouraged me beyond words.

He was the one who insisted I rehydrate Razorhouse mostly based on these long, rambling conversations we had at shows regarding my obsession with Mesoamerican culture. But without Nan Warshaw and Danny’s encouragement, I can’t see how I could have pushed this cardboard fort up the hill this far. 

I love the current lineup and we’ve been through our [share of] changes, that’s for sure. I’ve played with some great players in Razorhouse to date.

But currently it’s David Suycott on drums and Curtis Ruptash on bass and vocals; Tommi Zender on guitar and vocals and me on vocals and guitar.

Q – Razorhouse played in support of Revolting Cocks and Killing Joke at the Vic Theater on New Year’s Eve, 1991. I understand that night you were backed by members of Slammin’ Watusis, Stabbing Westward, Liquid Soul, Spies Who Surf and Evil Clowns. That sounds like it was quite a night. Would you say that was one of the highlights of your career at the time?

It was classic Spinal Tap rock and roll. Against all of the Vic Theater’s rules, we carried out a pig head that my brother Jason rigged with rags soaked in diesel and then lit it on fire for the song “March of the Easter Pig.”

Well, it melted through the wires that held it to the branch it was impaled on and it fell and slowly rolled around and lit some of the set lists on fire. It never got bad, but the fallout was extreme. Al Jourgensen and the cats in Killing Joke laughed their asses off.

Q – Your partner, Nan Warshaw, is co-founder of Bloodshot Records, which has carved out its own musical history. What do you think of the Chicago music scene and how do you think you fit into it?

I am extremely proud of Nan and her coworkers’ accomplishments. I think they represent one of the few points of light left out there in label land.

Beside that, Nan’s been involved with music since I met her when she was 18. She is name-checked in Kurt Cobain’s diary; how cool is that?

I never knew where or how I fit into the Chicago scene. Outside of new hip hop, I don’t really see too much of anything I’d consider an actual scene.

But with Razorhouse, some see what they want to see.

Q – Do you have any dream projects or collaborations?

Well, a few years back I tried hammering some projects together in order to work with two of my favorite drummers on some recordings. Both cats are my friends but timing, being what it is, sometimes conspires against opportunities.

I wanted to work with my friend Hunt Sales [of Tin Machine and Iggy Pop fame] on something and that has yet to gel. I was lucky enough to get Michael Blair (Tom Waits, Lou Reed) to work on a song of mine for my Black Friars Social Club project.

Both of these drummers are heavy hitters in more ways than the obvious.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Aurora's Paramount Theatre scores again with riveting version of "Cabaret"

Photo by Liz Lauren

The Paramount Theatre could play it safe and only stage musicals that leave crowds smiling and humming the songs from the production.

But the Paramount chose not to go that route when it launched its Broadway series in 2011. Time and time again, the theater has shown that it not only wants to entertain audiences, it also wants them to think as well.

That most certainly is the case with its latest production, "Cabaret," which runs through March 18. "Cabaret" is set in 1930s Berlin as the Nazis begin their rise to power. What starts out as a night of decadent fun at the Kit Kat Club quickly becomes a commentary on what can happen when you ignore the dangers around you.

Making her Paramount directing debut is Katie Spelman, who has already proven her chops through being nominated for a Jeff award for choreography in the Paramount's production of "Oklahoma!" Through her direction, Spelman immerses the audience in a world that at first seems enchanting until the storm clouds start rolling in.

Strong performances abound throughout the production, including Joseph Anthony Byrd's devilishly humorous take as the Emcee. And it is a feather in the Paramount's hat that the theater is able to attract cast members of such high caliber. Byrd recently was in Broadway production of "Kinky Boots" as well as national productions of "The Lion King" and "Mamma Mia!"

With 12 Jeff awards already under her belt, Hollis Resnik  delivered yet another stellar performance as Fräulein Schneider. She fully embodied the character and her scenes with love interest Herr Schultz were touching.

Kelly Felthous also turns in an enchanting performance as Sally Bowles, who was nominated for a Jeff award for playing Roxie Hart in Drury Lane's production of "Chicago." We watch with interest as the blinders that she has put on to shield herself from the reality outside of the Kit Kat Club slowly come off.

The Paramount Theatre is located at 23 E. Galena Blvd. in downtown Aurora. For tickets, go to or call 630-896-6666.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

As part of Paramount's second act, theatre plans to open a school of performing arts, refurbish Copley Theatre

Paramount School of Performing Arts


Aurora's Paramount Theatre plans to expand its entertainment footprint through opening the Paramount School of Performing Arts and staging original theatrical productions at a renovated Copley Theatre.

"The Paramount has already made a major impact on the city of Aurora," Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said, in helping announce the plans during a press conference on Jan. 25. "For example, since starting its Broadway series in 2011, the number of patrons has grown from 52,000 to more than 320,000 [a year]. The addition of a new school of performing arts will provide new opportunities for Aurora's youth and excitement to our city."

The new school, set to open in January 2019, will be located in the former Waubonsee Community College building located directly adjacent to the Paramount Theatre. The school will be the anchor tenant in the John C. Dunham Aurora Arts Center, the official name of the new 80,000-square-foot development that will also include a restaurant along with 38 affordable, loft-style apartments for working artists.

Rendering of Paramount School of Performing Arts studio theater by Vara Design

Also part of the Paramount's $4.5 million fundraising campaign – fittingly called Act 2 – is the modernization of the Paramount's 173-seat sister stage, the Copley Theatre, which is located in North Island Center across the street from the Paramount Theatre. Plans include the replacement of carpeting and seats in the 1981 Copley Theatre, updating technical equipment, expanding restrooms, new heating and air conditioning systems and remodeling backstage and dressing areas.

The Paramount plans to use the updated space for smaller shows as well as a place to debut original productions. Along with those projects, plans are to replace all 1,888 seats in the Paramount Theatre, which first opened in 1931.

The fundraising campaign kicked off with a $2.5 million donation from the Dunham Fund. 

"The [Paramount's] Broadway series has propelled our area into the limelight," said Wendy Hirsch, chairperson of the Dunham Fund, in presenting the donation to the Paramount Theatre. "And what an impact the Paramount is having on Aurora's downtown. The new Arts Center and the School of Performing Arts in particular will be another step toward improving lives in and around Aurora."

She said the Dunham Fund "is extremely proud to support the Paramount's capital campaign with this lead gift."

"We encourage everyone to support the campaign to the best of their ability and thank you to the entire Paramount organization for your willingness to push the envelop and for your tireless efforts to continue to change the face of Aurora's downtown," Hirsch said.

Former Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner chairs the Paramount Theatre's Act 2 capital fundraising campaign. Weisner called the Paramount the "cultural soul of Aurora," and he spoke enthusiastically about the project and what it will mean for downtown Aurora.

"I've been around for a while and I've seen a lot of good things happen in this community," Weisner said. "But I have to say that I'm more excited today than I think I ever have been about the prospects for the future for this community."

To donate to the Act 2 capital fundraising campaign, go to: