Having grown up in Rogers Park with parents who frequented the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera, Michael Orlove has long been intimate with the city’s finer musical institutions. But his passion has always been reserved for Chicago’s free festivals, events like the Grant Park concert series and the old eclectic Chicagofest at Navy Pier. “I loved that people could sit out in public free of charge and listen to world-class music,” he says. Now, as music coordinator for the Chicago Cultural Center, his vocation is to ensure that they can do it some 300 times a year, and his sixth year on the job is turning out to be his most ambitious yet.
In 1992, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a history degree, Orlove took an unpaid internship in the programming office of the Department of Cultural Affairs, which runs the Cultural Center. Three months later he was hired as a “programming associate.” Though the job also involved booking film, theater, dance, and lectures, an experience in his first year cemented his interest in presenting music: While organizing events to celebrate Black History Month, he set up a last-minute concert with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. “The show was mobbed, probably one of the biggest concerts I’ve ever done in terms of audience size,” with about 1,000 people in attendance, he says. “He played for well over two hours, and I had the biggest rush. It was the coolest thing to see kids and adults, poor people and rich people, black people and white people, whatever, coming to the Cultural Center and all digging this music. It really blew me away.”
Not all his efforts are so well appreciated. The Cultural Center brought in some impressive names this year, including jazzers like Danilo Perez, Roscoe Mitchell, Jerry Gonzalez, and Randy Weston, and world music performers like Ray Barretto, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Uakti, and John Santos. This Monday at 7 pianist Myra Melford presents her quintet here for only the second time (see Neil Tesser’s Critic’s Choice). But despite the extremely attractive ticket price, attendance generally hasn’t been what it would be at club shows by the same artists. Though local improvisers and experimental musicians have enjoyed some of their biggest audiences ever in the last few years, Orlove–who goes out to five or six shows a week–noticed that in particular the younger fans who patronized shows at Unity Temple and the Empty Bottle rarely came to similar gigs at the Cultural Center. “As corny as it sounds,” he says, “I felt like we were letting the public down.”
In part, Orlove says, this is to be expected. He knows that some of his favorite bookings will never appeal to the mainstream, but says the city has a responsibility to make sure the full spectrum of musical expression is presented. He says his work’s well supported from above–specifically by cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg–but with some prompting he admits that it could be better promoted. The Cultural Center puts on some 800 events great and small every year, and they all get pretty much equal gray-type treatment in the press releases. “Not everybody wants to go to the symphony or go to House of Blues,” he says. “There’s tons of stuff going on that gets very little attention and it needs to be given a boost.”
On January 9 a performance by British free-jazz drummer Paul Lytton kicks off the Cultural Center’s “New Music, New Millennium” series, an exciting step in the right direction. This spring, when Orlove learned that the Unity Temple series booked by Scott Black was folding, he started mulling how the Cultural Center could get more involved in the local creative-music scene. Then this summer, over lunch with Andy Fenchel, who’s presented forgotten jazz greats at Elbo Room, the Chopin Theatre, and the Empty Bottle, inspiration struck. He gathered Black, Fenchel, Gene Coleman (leader of Ensemble Noamnesia and a leading advocate of contemporary classical music), and John Corbett and Ken Vandermark (who book the Empty Bottle’s series) to brainstorm a city-funded series that could enhance their own projects.
“The idea wasn’t to compete, but to say, hey, I want to chip in X number of dollars and bring Joe Blow from Austria, and I want him to work with Fred [Anderson] and Hamid [Drake], and if you guys want to do something with him later in the week, cool. This is just the city’s way of chipping in.” In October Weisberg approved the series, and in January Orlove will learn if his proposed $14,000 budget–that’s for an estimated 20 shows–has officially passed.
The money will go toward bringing the artists to town, renting any necessary equipment, and setting up an “anchor” show at the Cultural Center around which the other organizers can plan their own events. For instance, Lytton’s free show at the center, where he’ll team up with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and pianist Jim Baker, will make possible a show later that week at the Empty Bottle as well as two in Michigan. Orlove has also confirmed a show with Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and avant rocker David Grubbs for January 29; Gustafsson will also play the Empty Bottle on the 27th with Ken Vandermark and Hamid Drake. Other artists Orlove’s working on for the first six months of 1999 are Muhal Richard Abrams, Joe and Mat Maneri, Karlheinz Essl, Derek Bailey, and Joelle Leandre.
In September Orlove will oversee another new large-scale program of his invention, the World Music Festival Chicago ’99. Although it’s in even more nascent form than the new-music series, Orlove’s approach to the fest looks similar: the Old Town School of Folk Music, HotHouse, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Field Museum will all participate in its mix of free and ticketed events, a special effort will be made to bring in artists who rarely play here, and collaborations with local musicians will be prominently featured.
For further information on Cultural Center programs and schedules, call 312-744-6630.
German pianist Georg GrŠwe plays Monday night at HotHouse in a quartet with German reedist Frank Gratkowski, bassist Kent Kessler, and drummer Hamid Drake.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mike Orlove photo by Dan Machnik.