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December 2010 Archives

December 1, 2010

Art flow

A commanding ink-on-rice-paper painting draws in coffee drinkers and museum visitors alike.

The installation crew used wheat paste to attach the rice-paper panels

Walk into the Smart Museum now, and you notice, perhaps for the first time, that the back wall of the reception hall (where the café tables sit) curves at the top. Accentuating the curve is a new installation, curated by art-history professor Wu Hung, covering the entire 60-by-40-foot wall: an abstract, black-and-white landscape that suggests water and fire flowing downward—or it is upward?—in smooth waves.

The first installation in the museum’s Threshold series, Cascade will adorn the wall for more than year, through next December, explained Smart Museum director Tony Hirschel. Until then viewers can gaze at it from the café tables or lie on a futon brought in so people can look up at that concave wall and ponder the waves, splotches, and trickles. They can inspect the crinkly rice paper that artist Bingyi painted this summer in a Chinese basketball court, where it was so hot she could work only at night, Hirschel said, and where a windstorm ripped some of the panels, which Bingyi reinforced with more rice paper. She experimented with kitchen detergent and bathroom cleaner to see how they would alter the ink’s absorption into the paper.

After the panels were shipped to Chicago, Bingyi oversaw their installation last month. A Smart crew affixed the sheets to the wall with wheat paste to create what is thought to be the largest rice-paper ink painting ever made. The result: from every angle, Cascade reveals something new.

Amy Puma

Photo by Jason Smith.
Artist Bingyi oversees a Smart installation crew measuring Cascade's rice-paper panels.

December 3, 2010

Getting a Handel on things


The U of C’s choral director talks about the annual campus performance of Messiah.

James Kallembach and I started with the University Chorus at the same time, in the fall of 2005. I had just moved back to Hyde Park to take a job with my alma mater; he had just been hired as the director of choral activities for the Department of Music. Every year since then, he has conducted (and I have sung in) the annual pre-holiday performance of George Frideric Handel's oratorio Messiah. Since after five years I could sing the choral parts with my eyes closed, I decided to see how it was wearing on Kallembach. A slightly edited interview with him is below.

QandA_QDrop.jpgHow many times have you conducted Messiah?

QandA_ADrop.jpgThis is my sixth time conducting it at U of C, and basically my sixth time conducting it in any substantial manner. The funny part of that story is that I avoided it during my graduate-school days because I always had this thought that I would end up in a position where I'd have to conduct it every year anyway, and I didn't want to get bored of it from the start. It turns out I was exactly right.

kallembach-portrait.jpgI've done several of the choruses in church choirs, accompanied several of the arias, and, of course, studied it in detail in school, but I've fulfilled my own prophesy of conducting it every year.

QandA_QDrop.jpgMost performances of Messiah are truncated—not every movement is performed. Why?

QandA_ADrop.jpgThe piece is so well-loved people want to perform it, but the two-and-a-half hour or more running time makes it difficult from a modern audience standpoint and from a soloist and choir standpoint. Plus, many of the movements don't lend themselves to certain times of the year. It probably began as a way for amateur choral societies to be able to perform the piece and ended up being a way to make it seasonal, i.e., Christmas and Easter movements as appropriate. One important note: there are several versions, so there are versions of arias and a chorus or two that hardly ever get performed at all.

What's unique in classical music is the almost insane popularity of this piece. I doubt there has been a year when it has not been performed since its premiere. This is very unusual in classical music (at least in performances prior to 1900 or so), and especially in the oratorio genre.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat’s your favorite movement?

QandA_ADrop.jpgI don't have a favorite movement, but some of my favorite moments are the first tenor aria "Comfort ye"—how unexpected that this massive oratorio would start with such a gentle and beautiful message. The first bars to the first tenor cadenza are my favorite (about the first 16 bars or so). I also love the little pastoral "Pifa" that opens up the angel visitation in Part I, "He shall feed his flock," "All we like sheep," "The trumpet shall sound," and the last few bars of the last movement. In general, I think the last movement is one of the most exciting movements in music history. Also, I apparently like the movements that involve pastoral scenes.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat’s your least favorite movement?

QandA_ADrop.jpg"He was despised" is an incredible aria, but amazingly long in the context of the whole work. I don’t dislike it, but I generally don’t include it for this performance due to its inordinate length.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhile the text of the oratorio is taken entirely from the Bible, it isn’t, strictly speaking, about Christmas. Why do you think Messiah has become a Christmastime staple?

QandA_ADrop.jpgTo be honest, I’m not sure. Handel just struck gold, and I doubt he had any idea of it at the time. On a rather cynical note, he needed a way to raise funds in a tricky London music and drama scene (although the work was premiered in Dublin). He basically created the best fundraiser of all time for things choral in the process. It was a huge success for him, and it continues to be one today.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhy is it a staple, so firmly fixed in the canon?

QandA_ADrop.jpgA weird way to think of it is that things that endure associated with the Christmas season—cold, the solstice, however you want to look at it—have to do with "light amidst the darkness" of the long, long nights of winter. So in climates like ours, I think it's common to want indoor activities to turn inward, so to speak.

From a musical standpoint, I think Jennens' masterful libretto is a huge component in this equation. It deftly puts scriptures together in a way that touches on profound spiritual mysteries. It can touch a broad audience.

Handel had an uncanny talent for setting the mood in music, and for musical wit, and this libretto gives him the room to do so. It's more about general feelings than it is about specific action, as in an opera. We all sit there waiting to hear what the first thing is that will happen in this piece that is supposed to depict the story of one of the world's major religions. Similar to other religious narratives, we wait to hear if some powerful force will come and sweep our problems and our enemies away and sort of feed into our ego, but the first thing that happens are the gentle chords in the strings, and then the tenor, a hero in the opera world, singing so gently the words "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people." Quite a different message than we were expecting.

Although it would be impossible to look at the libretto and see it as universalist in some way, it doesn't matter: we can see the deeper human messages and narrative behind the symbols and the myths.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat should a first-time attendee at this year’s concert know?

QandA_ADrop.jpgWe have some great guest soloists this year: Kimberly Jones and Wilbur Pauley. Both have connections with the Lyric Opera, and Wilbur just finished up his role of "Snug" in Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Lyric. We also have Matthew Dean, AB'00, and Lon Ellenberger (longtime Rockefeller Chapel soloist) singing solos.

To Kallembach's last answer I might add, "Come early": Rockefeller Memorial Chapel is big, but this concert packs the pews every year. Come see the University Chorus and Motet Choir perform Messiah for yourself, tonight at 8 p.m. at Rockefeller Chapel. Take it from me: the Hallelujah Chorus is worth the price of admission by itself.

Benjamin Recchie, AB'03

Joining the (glee) club

Voices in your Head hits the major leagues of college a capella, appearing on three national compilation CDs.


UChicago has been favored with a bunch of talented a capella groups—has your campus had a group open for President Obama?

One of those groups, Voices in Your Head, is experiencing a rareified moment in the sun (which I'm sure is especially nice in this wintry weather), featured on three major a capella compilations this year:

  • Sing 7, a free download for members of the Contemporary A Capella Society,
  • Best of College A Capella 2011, an upcoming CD release put out by Varsity Vocals, which runs the International Championship of A Cappella,
  • Voices Only 2010, a 38-track, two-disc album on which Voices in Your Head has been featured every year since 2008.

Not only that—"Boomerang," the Voices track on "Sing 7," is an original composition, which is a pretty special thing in a capella.

Only one other group in the country, On The Rocks of the University of Oregon, was featured on all three albums this year, and it had the benefit of being a YouTube phenomenon. Voices member Zach Denkensohn, '12, informed me that this trifecta has been accomplished only eight times since 2005.

Voices was already doing pretty well. The 15-member, co-ed group was featured on another compilation CD in 2008, this one put together by the acclaimed artist Ben Folds, who said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, "There’s a group from the University of Chicago called Voices in Your Head that sings “Magic” on the record, and to me they’re in a different league from the rest of the groups." Author Nick Hornby mentioned them in a New York Times piece. In 2009, they performed onstage with Ben Folds, and competed in the International Championship of A Capella

Voices is now angling to become a YouTube phenomenon in its own right. It will premiere a music video for "Resistance" (originally performed by Muse) at tonight's Fall Concert, which will be "Resistance/Thought Police/1984 themed," says Denkensohn. The video was filmed on campus, he said, and follows two Voices members the heads of a resistance group who are running away from...something. (Denkensohn wouldn't say what, so watch the video to find out—we'll post it when it's up). Tonight's concert, at 7 p.m. in Bond Chapel, also features the University of Michigan's Dicks and Janes.

Asher Klein, '11

December 15, 2010

A little light on the subject

The innovative design of the $215 million Eckhardt Center will illuminate the science inside.

The discoveries that could emerge from the William Eckhardt Research Center after it opens in 2015 strain the imagination—at least the scientifically impaired imagination. Home to the University’s new Institute for Molecular Engineering, and a central location for the Physical Sciences Division, the building will be a nexus for innovation. Whatever inconceivable forms it may take.

The form and function of the building—named in recognition of Eckhardt’s (SM’70) $20 million gift to support advanced science—is easier to grasp. There is a futuristic sheen to the renderings unveiled December 13, but the design relies on a retro resource: natural light. A collaboration between the firm HOK and the artist, sculptor, and architect Jamie Carpenter—whose portfolio includes the Midway light bridges currently under construction—the plan “will draw light deep inside to illuminate laboratories and hallways.”

Some of those illuminated labs will be below ground in spaces designed to limit vibrations and filter out contaminants. The seven-story, 265,000-square-foot building will have two basement levels. “One of the challenges is how to make the space feel light and connected to nature, given that so much of it is below grade,” University architect Steve Wiesenthal said in the News Office announcement of the new building.

He went on to explain how the $215 million design answers that challenge: “Perforated metal fins connected to serrated glass facades on the east and west will capture and reflect light horizontally into the building throughout the day. Further, a louvered glass ceiling over the north lobby will serve as a light well, capturing and driving light vertically into the building.”

Come to think of it, maybe the form and function of the building really aren’t any easier to understand than the science itself.

Jason Kelly

December 17, 2010

235 birthdays

Continue reading "235 birthdays" »

December 21, 2010

YO,* a scarf for this season

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere (as at least nine out of ten UChicago alumni do), today is the first day of winter. The higher your latitude, the lower the temperature is likely to be, and the higher the chances are that you didn’t leave home this morning without a scarf.

Which is where we come in. A few autumns ago, dreading the slings and arrows of Chicago winters, the University of Chicago Magazine commissioned knitting doyenne Silvia Harding, X’78, to design a University of Chicago scarf for readers to make for themselves or for the less-crafty Maroons in their lives.

Web stats tell us that from January 1, 2007, through December 19, 2010, the website Knitting Pattern Central has sent some 6,324 knitters our way. But if looking for a pattern were the same as knitting it, we'd all be waist-high in sweaters, hats, and fingerless gloves. So the question that has us knitting our brows is this: how many readers have taken up needles and yarn in response?

Show us your handiwork. If you didn't follow Harding's instructions to a C, that only means you're being true to your school.

Mary Ruth Yoe

* YO, or "yarn over," as the knitting cognoscenti know.

What’s different about the 2010 scarf modeled here? Sharon Kelly (co-owner, with sister Kathleen Kelly, AB’94, of Arcadia Knitting) brightened the C-stripe of the original design to creamy white.

About December 2010

This page contains all entries posted to UChiBLOGo in December 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

November 2010 is the previous archive.

January 2011 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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