Clef Notes

Bring your love of classical music into your inbox with Clef Notes. Join us each month as we check in with local music makers, share information about upcoming concerts, and expand our musical horizons together.

Remembering Paul Vermel

Paul Vermel, legendary conductor, educator, mentor, and orchestra builder, passed away on February 14, just five days before his 100th birthday. He was a professor of music at the University of Illinois and music director and conductor of both the University Symphony and Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra (CUSO) from 1974 to 1994. The CUSO will perform a concert in his honor to close out its season on Saturday, April 20. The program will feature music Vermel conducted with the orchestra, including Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto with soloist John Hagstrom of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Read on to learn more about Maestro Vermel and to read remembrances from longstanding members of the CUSO and current music director and conductor Stephen Alltop.

Peter Schaaf

April Fools’! Best of P.D.Q. Bach

Contrary to popular belief, classical musicians and composers have always had a good sense of humor. Mozart was a notorious potty-mouth, and Haydn loved a good musical surprise. But no musician had a better sense of humor than Peter Schickele, aka “P.D.Q. Bach.” The noted musical satirist passed away on January 16 at the age of 88. In preparation for April Fools’ Day, we look at some of Schickele’s best classical music gags as the “discoverer” of “the last and by far the least” of J. S. Bach’s progeny.

Rhapsody in Blue Turns 100—and Gains a Companion Piece

We met with composer Peter Boyer and pianist Jeffrey Biegel to discuss their new recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, Rhapsody in Red, White & Blue. Biegel commissioned Boyer to write a companion piece to George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue to honor the iconic work's hundredth birthday on February 12, 2024. While avoiding pastiche, Rhapsody in Red White & Blue tips its hat to Gershwin and captures the expansiveness of the American landscape. To promote the work, Biegel also devised the Rhapsody National Initiative, which will have him performing Boyer’s work with at least one orchestra in all 50 states.

Clara Schumann: Unsung Musical Powerhouse

March is Women's History Month. For too long, female composers of the past have been consigned to the footnotes of music history textbooks. However, the impact Clara Schumann had on the life and career of her husband, composer Robert Schumann, cannot be overstated. The primary breadwinner of the family, Clara not only birthed eight children, managed the household, and maintained an active performing and compositional career, but she also used her international reputation as a piano virtuoso to champion Robert's works both during and after his life. A trusted adviser, she encouraged him to set his sights higher and helped him craft some of his most beloved pieces. Read on to learn more about this remarkable woman.

Contemporary Female Composers You Should Know

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating five extraordinary female composers making valuable contributions to classical music today. While we are growing more accustomed to seeing female composers' names on concert programs, this is a relatively recent trend. In 2022, the New York Times reported that compositions by women and people of color made up 23% of pieces performed by American orchestras, up from only 5% in 2015. NPR reported that no female composers appeared on the programs of either the Philadelphia Orchestra or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in their 2018–19 seasons. None. Thanks in part to protests for racial justice after the murder of Geroge Floyd, the #MeToo movement, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape has started to shift. However, there is still work to be done. Read on to learn about composers Caroline Shaw, Anna Clyne, Jessie Montgomery, Joan Tower, and Gabriela Lena Frank and to listen to selected works.

Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms

In honor of Black History Month, we delve into Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms by Kira Thurman. The book recounts the rich history of Black classical musicians training and performing in Austro-Germany from the 1870s to the 1960s. Thurman argues that the presence of Black musicians in Germany simultaneously challenged and bolstered the concept of the universality of German art music—and, therefore, what it meant to be German—at a pivotal time when national borders were being drawn and redrawn. The eye-opening book sheds light on the lives and careers of individual artists and their place within broader historical events, offering unique insight into both American and European history and the intersection of racism, nationalism, and the arts. Read on to learn more about this fascinating book.

GRAMMY Awards 2024: Editor’s Picks

Classical musicians always get short shrift at the Grammys. While the pop awards ceremony is a great spectacle watched by millions ever year, the awards for classical music and other non-mainstream categories are not even televised (though this year they will be live-streamed). In anticipation of the 2024 GRAMMY Awards on February 4, read our editor's picks for the classical categories and listen to recommended selections.

Interview with Pianist Esther Lee

We caught up with pianist Huijae (Esther) Lee, winner of the Annual 21st-Century Commission Competition and 2023 Krannert Debut Artist. On February 3, she will perform a recital at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts featuring the winning commission by composer Jung Hyun Lee. The 21st-Century Commission is an endowed award that honors the University of Illinois' talented composers and performers and promotes their musical ideas in concert. Read on to learn more about Lee and the commissioned work, "Emile," inspired by the ancient Bell of King Seongdoeok (성덕대왕신종).

Jason McDonald/Netflix

Musical Musings on Maestro

Rather than charting the life and accomplishments of famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Bradley Cooper's new film, Maestro, uses Bernstein's biography as a backdrop against which the drama of the unique love story between Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre, plays out. While some ardent classical music fans may be disappointed at the seemingly secondary role Bernstein’s music plays in the film, the decision to center Felicia sheds new light on the complicated composer. Read on for a musician's perspective on the film, now playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix from December 20.

Michael Brosilow

Chicago Opera Theater: An Opera Company Worth Traveling For

Chicago Opera Theater is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season. The company has grown from a grass-roots organization into a national leader in promoting opera as a vibrant, living art form, with high-quality productions of new and lesser-known operas featuring up-and-coming artists and local talent. We recently saw this work in action with the Chicago premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich's absurdist opera The Nose. Read on for a review and why you should keep this company in mind when planning your next musical excursion to the city. We also take a look at the company's next production, Huang Ruo’s Book of Mountains and Seas, coming January 26–28. 

Illinois Public Media Clef Notes

Clef Notes

Illinois Arts Council Agency

These programs are partially sponsored by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.