A music man, a master photographer, and a Chanukah musical

Art for the winter with a Jewish twist

hedyhershel image
Publicity image for Strawdog Theatre Company’s production of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. Photo by Kamille Dawkins.

Chanukah came early this year, with the last candle lighting on Dec. 6. But that is no reason to stop celebrating the holiday season. In fact, it's an invitation to enjoy the very best of all possible gifts--an evening at the ballet or symphony, a visit to a museum, a trip to the theater. So here are a few suggestions, all of which come with "a bit of a Jewish twist."

Scott Speck, Maestro of the Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker

Conductor Scott Speck has led orchestras in London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, and conducted gala performances featuring such musical superstars as Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, and Renee Fleming. But in Chicago he is most widely known for his work as Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet since 2010, and, since 2013, as Artistic Director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra (which is comprised largely of members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra).

For Speck, December invariably means leading Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker --a ballet score he estimates he has conducted about 400 times. But this season is special as it will mark the first time the Joffrey will perform the company's unique version of the story (which spins around the creation of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago), on the stage of its new home--the Lyric Opera House--where it will run Dec. 4-26.

Self-described as "a New England boy who grew up in an ethnically Jewish secular family in a small Boston suburb and went on to attend Yale University," Speck is a multi-lingual Fulbright Scholar and co-author of the best-selling book, Classical Music for Dummies .

"I am thrilled that live performance has returned," he said. "Like everything else, the Joffrey's production of The Nutcracker was canceled last December, and I really missed it. It's one of my very favorite scores--just a part of me--with a fountain of beautiful melodies for two hours. And I love the fact that the ballet debuted in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892, at almost exactly the same time in which the version of the story choreographer Christopher Wheeldon created for the Joffrey is set. Plus, when you conduct a ballet score, the beat of the baton coincides with the motion of the dancers, and there is such a dance between them and the musicians."

In a recent chat Speck also noted that he was always surrounded by classical music, that his father was an excellent jazz clarinetist, and that his mother studied the marimba "but at one point sold the instrument to the Boston Symphony Orchestra." He also said: "The older I get, the more I realize what I received from the Jewish tradition--the constant asking of questions, and a reverence for both knowledge and family."

As for conducting the work of Jewish composers, Speck noted: "I led the Chicago Philharmonic in Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring this past September, and will lead the West Michigan Symphony in his Fanfare for the Common Man this coming June. I also conducted Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony with the Mobile Symphony in Alabama. And while the composer's father converted the family to Lutheranism for what were probably political reasons, Mendelssohn was of Jewish descent and his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a prominent Jewish philosopher."

Work of master photographer Andre Kertesz on View at the Art Institute of Chicago:

Andre Kertesz was born into a middle class Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary in 1894, and as a young man was pressured into earning a living as a stockbroker. But his interest in the illustrated magazines of the time led him to buy a camera and to begin experimenting as a self-taught photographer, and he would eventually be recognized as one of the seminal figures in 20th century photography.

In the fall of 1925, Kertesz moved to Paris with little more than his camera and some modest savings, but the three years he spent in that city, which was then the art capital of the world, were life-changing. And his work from that period is now the subject of "Andre Kertesz: Postcards from Paris," a beautifully designed exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago organized by Elizabeth Siegel, the museum's Curator of Photography and Media.

The exhibit brings together more than a hundred of Kertesz's "cartes postale" prints--iconic works made during those crucial three years he spent in Paris. Printed on inexpensive postcard paper whose small size made them easy to distribute, these photos--including such now classic images as a fork resting on the rim of a bowl and casting a shadow, a "satiric dancer" in a unique pose on a divan, and the curving stairway in the pristine hallway of the Paris home of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian marked him as an artist with a unique eye as both a photo-journalist and an avant-garde artist. And his circle of friends began to expand from his fellow Hungarian emigres to an array of international artists, dancers, and writers who also made Paris their home.

Kertesz emigrated to New York in 1936 as the rise of the Nazi party became evident.

"He was not an observant Jew, but he sensed that the winds were changing," said Siegel. "His subsequent years in the U.S., where he spent the rest of his long life, were rough. But he viewed a 1946 solo exhibit of his work at the Art Institute as one of his best moments, with an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1964 finally solidifying his stature. Though never fully mastering English, he is quoted as saying "Photography is my only language."

The Kertesz exhibit runs through Jan. 17. For details visit artic.edu .

'Hershel' a family musical for the holidays:

In search of a show for kids, grandkids, and ageless adults? Catch the free live performances of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins running through Dec. 12 in a Strawdog Theatre production staged at the Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge.

The show is based on a book by the Caldecott Honor-winning children's author Eric Kimmel, adapted by Michael Daily, and features music and lyrics by Jacob Combs. It spins the story of a traveling troupe of actors that comes to town and finds that no one is celebrating Chanukah. They decide to put on a show in an attempt to save the holiday as this question looms: Will Hershel of Ostropol (a beautiful town in Ukraine that was once a great center of shtetl life) outsmart the goblins who haunt the old synagogue?

For tickets and COVID protocol details, visit strawdog.org .


Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the   Chicago Sun-Times   from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for   WTTW-TV's  website and contributes to the   Chicago Tonight   program.

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