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Artistic rebirth as summer turns to fall

Multi-faceted (and safe) return to live performance

Hedy_Weiss_Joffrey_Ballet  image
A scene from the Joffrey Ballet production of The Sofa featuring Anna Gerberich and Temur Suluashvili. Photo credit: Cheryl Mann.

It is the most hopeful of times. It also is the most uncertain of times. (Apologies, Charles Dickens.) Theaters, dance companies, orchestras, museums, and audiences of every stripe are actively warming up for the 2021/22 season, and for what they hope will mark an increasingly multi-faceted (and safe) return to live performance.

Of course, a certain virus we have come to know all too well during the past 18 months continues to hover in the wings, creating an air of anxiety. So, in writing this column I am accenting the positive, and tossing in one timely, stay-at-home option.

The 'Ravinia Box' opens at Ravinia:

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), one of the great musical polymaths, hardly needs an introduction. He was a hugely charismatic and, at times, controversial figure. He was a celebrated conductor, pianist, teacher, mentor, and writer who composed both classical works and such Broadway classics as West Side Story , Candide , and On the Town . He was the driving force behind the Young People's Concerts, that unique 53-episode CBS television series that ran from 1958 to 1972. In the world of music, his range of talents remains unmatched.

And last month (August), as it joyously reopened after the 2020 summer of pandemic lockdown, the Ravinia Festival welcomed audiences to its newest attraction-the RaviniaMusicBox.

This multi-purpose, "immersive, hi-tech multimedia experience center," designed by BRC Imagine Arts, is outfitted with a 65-seat theater, two exhibition spaces, and more. Its inaugural program, "Bernstein's Answer," will run for several summer seasons. It will be free of charge to all concert-goers, and also will be available for educational field trips throughout the school year. The goal is to initiate audiences of all ages into the wonders of classical music in ways that go far beyond the schoolroom experience and might serve as a sort of overture to the art form.

Many years in the planning and realization stages, the MusicBox project was shepherded by Welz Kauffman, who last year stepped down as Ravinia's President and CEO after a two-decade run. It is now being overseen by his successor, Jeffrey P. Haydon.

Adding to the Bernstein enthusiasm is Marin Alsop, who began the first season of her two-year appointment as Ravinia's Chief Conductor and Curator this summer. Alsop, who was mentored by Bernstein as a conducting student at the Tanglewood Center in the Berkshires, championed Bernstein's "Mass" in performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in 2018 and 2019. Those grand-scale performances were part of a celebration of the composer's centennial and were subsequently seen on PBS's Great Performances .

Kauffman, who also was a student of Bernstein's at Tanglewood, was 16 when he first met the composer. As he recalls it, the master sat down at a piano in his private studio "and sang all the arias in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde , and explained every line." Kauffman then served as Bernstein's rehearsal pianist for one season.

"I hope the Bernstein exhibit will maximize the classical music energy around Ravinia for the many audiences who come to the Festival for non-classical music programs," said Kauffman. "The intimate theater experience in the MusicBox can be seen by a series of rotating audiences with a total of as many as 400 to 500 people on any given night. The pre-show experience takes place among elaborate hi-tech screens in the lobby-all part of evoking both the man and his music."

Bernstein, who served as music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, conducted many of the world's major orchestras throughout his career. He led concerts with the CSO at Ravinia in 1944, 1945 and 1956. And he played an important role in the early years of the Israel Philharmonic, a story that has just been turned into a documentary by actor/musician/writer Hershey Felder, also widely familiar to Chicago audiences.

For details about the Ravinia season, visit ravinia.org.

The Joffrey Ballet at Ravinia:

In other Ravinia news, the Joffrey Ballet will return to the festival this summer for a single performance on the Pavilion stage on Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. The mixed bill program will include works by Nicolas Blanc, Chanel DaSilva, and Justin Peck (who has created the choreography for Steven Spielberg's upcoming film version of West Side Story ). Also in the mix will be Itzik Galili's The Sofa .

Galili is an Israeli-born choreographer who danced with the Batsheva and Bat-Dor companies before founding his own company in the Netherlands in 1991. He created The Sofa , which is set to Tom Waits' iconic song, "Nobody," in 1995. When the Joffrey first performed it at the Auditorium Theatre in February of 2020, I described it as "a wildly comic, crazily slapstick ballet about sexual attraction, rejection, and orientation that is full of slam-bang antics." It also has a surprise ending I will not divulge here.

Visit ravinia.org.

And there's more:

At Northlight Theatre in Skokie, actress/singer Bethany Thomas will perform a one-woman show, Songs for Nobodies (Sept. 23 - Oct. 31), in which she celebrates Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Maria Callas, and Edith Piaf. The character in the Piaf segment tells the story of how the night before her grandfather was transported to Dachau, the singer performed at the Le Struthof concentration camp and secretly helped to save many French Jews. Is this fact, or fiction, or something in between?  (Go to snopes.com and search for "Edith Piaf" to learn more.)

For tickets visit: northlight.org.

The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire will open its season with And the World Goes Round (Sept. 15 - Nov. 7). This revue will showcase the remarkable songs from such hit musicals as Cabaret , Chicago , Kiss of the Spider Woman , and many others, all penned by the Broadway team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, both of whom were from Jewish families.

For tickets, visit: marriotttheatre.com.

Finally, there is Come from Away , the wonderfully quirky and deeply moving Tony Award-winning musical created by the Canadian-Jewish husband-and-wife team of David Hein and Irene Sankoff. It recounts the true story of how the residents of Gander, Newfoundland responded when 7,000 passengers were suddenly stranded in the town after their planes were diverted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Filmed live on Broadway, the musical is set to stream exclusively on Apple TV+ beginning Sept. 11.

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



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