Family history, offbeat art

The music of different eras

arts Hedy May 2024  image
The Simon & Garfunkel Story chronicling the story of the iconic rock folk duo is playing through May 5 in Chicago. Pictured: Brendan Jacob Smith (left), who plays Art Garfunkel and Jonah Bono, who plays Paul Simon. (Photo credit: Timothy Norris.)

"Tra la! It's May! The lusty month of May! That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray." Of course, if you are familiar with the score of Camelot  --the work of Lerner and Loewe, those Broadway musical theater geniuses who happened to be Jewish--you can start singing. You also can begin to enjoy the arrival of a wide array of work by Jewish writers, artists, and musicians.

So, without further ado, here is a look at a number of alluring experiences to be enjoyed--from an opera inspired by the reporting of a widely known Chicago music critic... to a display of whimsical work by visual artists... to performances of music by composers from notably different eras.

Before It All Goes Dark

Howard Reich, the son of Holocaust survivors, grew up in Skokie, served as the Chicago Tribune 's distinguished music critic from 1983 to 2021, and, over the years, has penned six books and three documentary films.

Back in 2002, Reich wrote two articles for the Tribune that recently inspired

Before It All Goes Dark , a one-act opera with music by Jake Heggie and a libretto by Gene Scheer. It tells the story of a Vietnam veteran in his early 50s named Gerald "Mac" McDonald who lived in the Chicago suburb of Lyons, was close to penniless, and was seriously ill with Hepatitis C.

But there is a great deal more to the story, for although he was baptized as a Lutheran, Mac was, in fact, Jewish (his parents, Holocaust survivors, wanted to hide that from him). In addition, he learned that he was the only living relative of his great-great uncle Emil Freund-a wealthy lawyer in Prague. Freund owned a vast collection of important, valuable paintings before he was deported by the Nazis to the Lodz ghetto in Poland and died there in 1942.

The opera, co-produced by Music of Remembrance-the Seattle-based organization that has focused much of its work on the discovery and performance of music from the Holocaust-will have two world premiere performances this month by the Chicago Opera Theater on May 25 at 7:30 p.m. and May 26 at 3 p.m. on the stage of the Studebaker Theater. It was Reich's interviews with Mac (and their joint trip to Czechoslovakia and Poland) that inspired the work altogether.

As for the paintings, the Czechs would not return them to McDonald and claimed they were the property of Prague's National Gallery, although in 2002 they were given to the city's Jewish Museum. That museum dubbed them "National Treasures" that could not be returned to Mac, who would die just a couple of years later.

"I think if McDonald could hear this opera he would be blown away," Reich said. "Before he died, he embraced his Jewish identity."

For tickets, visit cot.org or call 312-704-8414.

An offbeat showcase for contemporary Jewish artists

Meshuganah, the Yiddish word for a "crazy person," hardly needs translation. But it also happens to be the teasing title of an art exhibit that opened in April at A Very Serious Gallery (673 N. Milwaukee Ave.), and that is now on view only through May 4.

Co-curated by Josh and Megan Rogers, the exhibit is described by gallery owner Allan Weinberger as "deeply meaningful, whimsical, and culturally rich." It features 20 widely varied works by 10 different contemporary Jewish artists based in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and beyond. I have to add that "Three Jews Walk Into a Bar" (pictured) is absolutely amazing. At first glance I thought it was a photograph, but it is, in fact, the brilliant (and somewhat devilish) work of the hyper-realist painter Marc Dennis. Remarkable.

Two quite different "bonus" performances

To start, there is the national touring production of The Simon & Garfunkel Story  playing at Broadway in Chicago's CIBC Theatre (April 30 - May 5 only). While the partnership between the two musicians has been severed since 1970, the pair's songs "Mrs. Robinson," "The Sound of Silence," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and countless others-that resulted in the sale of 100 million albums over the years- remain as irresistible as ever. So start singing in celebration of the one-week touring stop of this show in Chicago.

For tickets, visit BroadwayInChicago.com.

Then comes Evgeny Kissin, the brilliant Russian-born pianist-now a citizen of both Britain and Israel. He will play works by Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev in a solo concert at Orchestra Hall at 3 p.m. on May 19.

For tickets, visit cso.org or call 312-294-3000.

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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