Art Beat: Notable losses, moments in 2012

Art Beat: Notable losses, moments in 2012

Many of us will remember 2012 as the year we lost two great ones: Dan Perrino and Thomas Schleis.

Another great local talent also died in the year that almost was: Rachael Lee, a jazz vocalist from Macon who at one time lived in Champaign-Urbana and who enjoyed a regional reputation.

Pianist Donnie Heitler of Urbana often accompanied her here and in Springfield, Decatur and Chicago, where she at one point lived and worked as a vocalist for a businessman who put on major events for major organizations.

Heitler and a few other jazzers here kept up with Ms. Lee as her health deteriorated in recent years, visiting her in nursing homes in Decatur and then Collinsville.

She died Oct. 13 at St. Louis University Hospital at age 62.

I had never met Ms. Lee nor had I heard her sing.

But I had heard about her for years.

"She was a great talent," Heitler told me. "She had a lot of feeling in her singing. She could put a tune across, that's for sure. She had strength yet she could be tender."

The pianist, himself a great talent, said Ms. Lee also was fun to accompany.

"She was a good musician. We sort of locked into things when we did things together. It felt real good."

Jazz trumpeter Jeff Helgesen called Ms. Lee one of a kind.

"She never sang a tune without putting everything she had into it," he said. "She had the experience to cover a wide swath of music, and she didn't need to be working with musicians with whom she was familiar in order to drive the music where she wanted it to go.

"In getting to play alongside her, I knew she'd always draw a big crowd of loyal followers, because she had a way of driving the energy of an audience, and taking advantage of the players she had with her. She was a unique talent in the community when she was here, and there really hasn't been anyone who's come along since who could do what she could do. And she was a great friend."

RIP, Ms. Lee.

Other 2012 events

On Thursday, I went to our newspaper library — where we keep bound volumes of old papers — and flipped through the pages from 2012 to refresh my memory of some of the arts highlights of the year. Among them:

— Francesca Zambello, a leading American opera and theater director, spoke at the Spurlock Museum in January as part of the MillerComm lecture series.

A direct person, she gave a fun and informative talk, mainly about the state of opera today.

She was in Illinois at the time to direct "Show Boat" at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. It starred baritone Nathan Gunn, a professor of voice at the University of Illinois, as the charming gambler Gaylord Ravenal.

— A seminal visual artist who visited the UI campus early in the year was Carolee Schneemann, in connection with the Krannert Art Museum retrospective "Carolee Schneemann: Within and Beyond the Premises," curated by Brian Wallace and first organized by and presented at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at State University of New York at New Paltz.

Schneemann, whose master of fine arts degree is from the UI, is mainly known for her works on the body, sexuality and gender. One art historian commented to me at the opening of the show at Krannert that her work remains shocking, even today.

— The much-anticipated and painstaking renovation of the Virginia Theatre's Wurlitzer organ by John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders of Champaign was finally completed, with the refurbished organ rededicated March 31 at the theater. Unfortunately, organist Warren York, who had kept the organ going over the decades, was not there; he died in 2011.

— Also effective March 31 was the resignation of Karl Kramer as head of the UI School of Music. Some people cheered; others felt their stomachs sink at the news. On April 15, he became dean and principal of the Sydney Conservatorium, which is part of the University of Sydney. Musicologist and UI faculty member Jeff Magee is now interim head of the music school.

— Also in March, classical music lovers here heard the bad — one music professor called it brutal — news that the Grammy Award-winning Pacifica Quartet had resigned, effective at the end of the spring semester, from the UI School of Music. They took a similar quartet in-residence position at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.

On Nov. 1, the Pacifica made an emotional return at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where the four musicians thanked the audience and said it knew the quartet better than any other audience in the world.

While here, Masumi Per Rostad, the violist in the Pacifica, founded the DoCha (downtown Champaign) chamber music festival, which turned on a lot of people to chamber music. He left the festival in the capable hands of Paul Redman and Stefan Milenkovich.

And the School of Music quickly hired the Jupiter Quartet to succeed the Pacifica; the Jupiters are basically on the same performance-career trajectory as the Pacifica, having won similar awards.

— One of the most fun concerts of the 2012-13 season was the evening with Mandy Patinkin and Gunn at Krannert, where the Broadway belter (and TV and movie star) met the hunky opera star.

"We came at it from our own worlds," Gunn told me after the concert. "But we have a similar purpose, to communicate and to tell a story, sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes sad. It's all we're trying to do."

As I wrote after that concert:

"Gunn and Patinkin did more, bringing their enthusiasm to the evening, making for an opera-meets-Broadway schtick full of verbal and lyric repartee, and solos that played off each other, and duets as well.

"All the while the two received unobtrusive, tasteful accompaniment from pianists Julie Jordan Gunn (Nathans wife) and Paul Ford.

"Besides being fun, the program, devised by the four of them, was unusual, heart-warming, uplifting, a little puzzling ... and a bit hokey. But definitely entertaining."

— Many of you who read this column know that one of my favorite hangouts is The Iron Post, basically my neighborhood bar, where I can hear the jazz music I've loved since I was in high school.

Some of the highlights this past year at the Post included pianist/homegrown talent Laurence Hobgood with saxophonist Ernie Watts; UI faculty member Glenn Wilson's Devil's Hopyard project — music that resembles that of a contemporary chamber ensemble but with jazz improvisations; and bands fronted by bassist Larry Gray and Tito Carrillo, both UI School of Music faculty members.

Another Urbana venue that's becoming a go-to place for jazzers is Buvons. There I recently heard Heitler and Chip Stephens doing four-handed piano together. Heitler later told me it's a novelty.

I considered it a treat!

— Roger Ebert's Film Festival is always a major happening, bringing in movie stars, directors and producers from all over the world. The 14th annual Ebertfest in April at the Virginia Theatre and UI campus again introduced the audiences to notables as well as films they might have overlooked.

Some of my favorites were "Higher Ground," "Terri," "Take Shelter" and "Big Fan." The only disappointing aspect of the festival was that Patton Oswalt had to cancel his appearance with "Big Fan"; he was shooting a movie at the time and was required on set.

This past year, Ebert also saw the release of his well-received memoir, "Life Itself." The first third or so of the book is an ode to his childhood in Urbana and his education at the UI. A movie based on the book is in the works, with Martin Scorsese as one of its producers.

— One of the best student ensembles to come out of the UI this past year was the Jazz Trombone Ensemble directed by Jim Pugh. In 2012, it won both the International Trombone Association Jazz Trombone Ensemble and the Eastern Trombone Workshop Jazz Trombone Ensemble competitions. It was unprecedented for a group to win both the same year. The wins meant the group was invited to play over the summer in Paris; I often heard them busking at the farmers' market in Urbana to raise money for that trip.

— The Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra began its 2012-13 season in October without maestro Steven Larsen, who had resigned in April 2011. Four other conductors chosen as finalists to succeed Larsen are guest conducting the orchestra's classic concerts this season, the ensemble's 53rd.

The finalists: Farkhad Khudyev of Berkeley Heights, N.J., Stephen Alltop of Evanston, David Commanday of Peoria and Alexander Platt of Chicago. The orchestra will announce its new music director/conductor at the end of the season.

— I know some of my readers did not like "Fantasy Fence," the major installation designed by Gail Glende Rost of colorful billboard material woven into the chain link fence that surrounded the former Metropolitan Building site at Neil and Church streets. Well, I and plenty of other people loved it and were sad to see it come down in June to make way for the construction of a hotel at the Champaign site. But it served its purpose, hiding from view a real eyesore.

— This past year saw the formation of at least three new performing arts groups. One is the Stone Soup Theater Company, founded by Champaign Urbana Theatre Company co-founder John Stuff and others. Its first productions were "The Regifters" and "The Littlest Angel," presented earlier this month. The new group hopes to eventually do dinner theater.

A second new group, Illini Student Musicals, was formed by UI students. That troupe presented "The Drowsy Chaperone" as its first production in the newly renovated Lincoln Hall theater earlier this fall. It plans to stage "Little Shop of Horrors" in March 2013.

And another group of UI students started Opera Venezuela, which presented "Gianni Schicchi" earlier this month in Smith Memorial Hall. Stay tuned for 2013.

— A major development was the successful transition of the Art Theater in downtown Champaign from a privately operated business to a cooperative owned by 1,200 people. This took place in August, about four months before the projected transition date.

Ebert said we can be proud of this, as the Art is believed to be the first and only movie theater so far operated by a cooperative. It hired the young and enthusiastic Austin McCann as general manager.

— And last but not least: the excellent African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, performed to a sold-out house Nov. 14 at Krannert.

And earlier in the fall, also at Krannert, Philippe Petit, the "Man on Wire" who in 1974 walked over a cable stretched between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. While here, Petit made three public appearances, one at the Art and the other two at Krannert.

At Krannert, he did a one-man show and appeared on stage for a discussion with Elizabeth Streb, an action choreographer who gave Petit one of her first Maverick Awards for his bravery.

The attitudes of and ideas expressed by Petit and Streb rearranged my molecules, making me a little less fearful of life and placing me more often in the present moment, where I want to be.

I'll never forget one lesson I learned from Petit and Streb. During the public discussion between the two, Streb related to the audience how she once asked Petit whether he felt fear when he walked across the wire stretched a quarter-mile above the streets of New York City.

He said yes — but that it was just another detail he had to attend to.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (3):Art, Film, Music
Tags (1):Art Beat