It's a Classical Kind of Summer

Dennis Shin
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing at the Ravinia Festival.

Classical music fans can rest assured that financially stressed arts organizations will continue to strive to make events accessible to the public, particularly in the summer months.

A highlight of the summer is the opportunity to experience music under the stars. The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, a north suburb of Chicago, has offered generations of music fans a diverse mix of classical, jazz, pop and folk. Ravinia, like outdoor theatres around the country such as the Hollywood Bowl, Wolftrap, and Tanglewood, offers patrons of the fine arts the opportunity to hear music in a more informal setting.

Listeners are willing to give up the creature comforts of the symphony hall, in favor of setting up on blankets wall-to-wall with their neighbors, braving the periodic interruption of train engines and cicadas to hear some of the world’s finest musicians over a picnic spread or a glass of wine. Ravinia draws a diverse crowd, from the scions of the North Shore society set hobnobbing under festive party tents, to families, children and students, many drawn by lawn tickets as priced as low as $10.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 75th year this summer at Ravinia, with concerts available over a six-week period. Highlights of the 2011 season include appearances by superstar performances by Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Andre watts, Pinchas Zuckerman, Emmanuel Ax. In what has become an annual rite, superstar concert pianist Lang Lang returns to collaborate with former CSO conductor Christopher Eschenbach.

It was on the Ravinia stage where Lang Lang made history, making his concert debut as a last minute fill-in for an ailing Andre Watts, bringing down the house on the night that a star was born. Other highlights of the CSO summer season include concert performances of Tosca, the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and a highly anticipated collaboration with Rufus Wainwright.

For symphonies and their performers, it represents an opportunity to expand outreach opportunities to existing fans and new subscribers in an informal setting. While arts education and community education programs take place year round, major symphony orchestras have capitalized on the intimacy of the summer months to make new inroads into the community. Both Ravinia and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have been proactive in this front.

Ravinia, which has supported arts education through its Reach*Teach* Play program, has launched its Classical Youth Initiative, a campaign to promote student attendance, offering school kids free admission, while instituting a contest in which the school with the best attendance over the course of the summer will win music equipment. The CSO is continuing the legacy initiated by Maestro Daniel Barenboim, a former child prodigy whose bold initiatives included launching the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together Arab and Israeli youth together under his direction and concerts in the community. One of my more memorable summer nights was seeing the CSO play Harrison Park in Pilsen, before a predominantly Latino audience that harbored a deep appreciation for the arts and reveled in Maestro Barenboim’s innate understanding of their cultural heritage from Barenboim’s upbringing in Argentina.

Under new director Ricardo Muti, the CSO has similar ambitions. Muti has led a youth orchestra in his native Italy, and plans to continue the CSO’s tradition of playing free concerts in the community. Under the inspiration of creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma, who in his career has promoted arts education and community engagement through innovative initiatives such as the Silk Road Project, the CSO is moving even further into the realm of community engagement. The Citizen Musician initiative will pave the way for promoting musicians of all skill levels to use music in everyday life as a means of collaboration and involvement with their communities.

Other major performing arts organizations have taken to the road, as well. The Metropolitan Opera will be staging six recitals in concerts at parks across all five boroughs of New York this summer as part of the City Parks Foundation’s ambitious program of bringing arts to the community. While the New York Philharmonic has had to cancel its decades long tradition of free outdoor concerts, citing scheduling conflicts with an upcoming tour, Lincoln Center will be holding its Lincoln Out of Doors festival, with close to 100 free performances in and around the Lincoln Center campus during the dog days of summer.

Aside from catching classical music in the park, or at an outdoor theater seating, music fans have incorporated the symphony hall experience into their vacation schedules. Two of the most celebrated classical music festivals occur at either ends of the summer. One of the major classical music destination is the Salzburg Festival, which occurs in the month of August. In Salzburg, Austria. Boasting a who’s who of divas, maestros and leading symphony orchestras, including the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, and a reunion with former Salzburg music director and current Chicago Symphony Orchestra head Ricardo Muti, the Salzburg festival, like Spoleto, strives to make arts accessible to a wide range of the public.

Ticketing options range from gaudy black tie gala concerts, opera and major symphony concerts which kick off at noon, as well as chamber performances at a wide range of venues around town. Despite the embarrassment of riches, perhaps a lasting memory from my trip to the Salzburg Festival was listening to a live simulcast of a gala concert in the main town square, alongside some electricians from Milan, Italy, who were attired in Milan finery for their walk around town and were eager to share their mutual appreciation for the fine arts with some American tourists.

Stateside, at the beginning of the summer, the Spoleto Festival USA, drawing inspiration from a festival stated in Italy, takes place in Charleston, South Carolina. This event offers up a diverse array of classical music, jazz, dance, theatre, and pop from Memorial day through June. Playing to the sensibilities of the summer tourist season, most performing venues encourage casual attire, with performances taking place in auditoriums, churches, schools, parks and temporary spaces that give visitors a feel for Charleston.

Some of the more dynamic and ambitious performances in the past included a six-part, 18-hour Chinese opera, The Peony Pavilion, which had the narrative feel of a James Michener mini-series with a sprawling 150 characters, but featuring traditional Chinese dance, swordplay and martial arts, puppetry, and a 1,800 gallon pond full of ducks. This year’s lineup includes conventional fare such as Mozart's The Magic Flute, performances by Louisiana arts champion Trombone Shorty, and an ecletic range of performance ranging from concerts put on by the Festival orchestra to chamber pieces taking place in intimate environments around town.

Spoleto Festival performers offer music connosseiur s a treat, exposure to top rate, but lesser known emerging artists who view summer festivals such as Spoleto as breakthrough opportunities. Many performers are students in residence in programs such as the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development program.

Alongside Spoleto Festival USA is a parallel festival, Piccolo Spoleto, which also features a wide range of music, dance and theater, but focuses on regional and local artists, including the Charleston symphony orchestra and Charleston Ballet theatre. While Spoleto Festival US places itself in the heady environment of other international fine arts festivals, Piccolo Spoleto revels in its mandate to support emerging artists and to foster community support for the arts through arts education programs.

In the end, though, aside from affording fans of classical music a pleasant escape from the confines of the symphony hall, performing arts organization recognize the potential of the summer months for reaching out to prospective new audiences in an informal setting. Despite the financial challenges of doing more with less, arts organizations recognize that these activities are intrinsic to building community, and indirectly, to their own future success.

In a time when many arts organizations and municipalities are cutting back on programming, citing budget difficulties, or undertaking the controversial decision to charge money for outdoor events, the city of Charleston is resolute in making the arts accessible to the community by offering as much as half of its 700 events available to the public for free. Major players, such as the city of Chicago are considering raising much needed money through hefty ticket prices for events such as its popular Taste of Chicago music festival. Charleston, however, operating on a budget of under a $1 million, understands that while a larger budget may mean the ability to bring in big name acts, increases in admission fees, even if consistent with trends across other entertainment forms of spending, changes the dynamics of the user experience and serves as a potential barrier to exposing new customers to the arts.

Understanding the importance of the festival to showcasing local and emerging artists, Piccolo Spoleto organizers have resisted the temptation to cut corners, or going in the direction of bringing in more popular name or rock artists to drum up revenue. In fact, the festival has decided, in the face of financial pressure, to go in the other direction, making more events free in the future while working harder to secure public funding.

Music fans can rest assured that financially stressed arts organizations will continue to strive to make events accessible to the public, particularly in the summer months. Indeed, the City Parks Foundation, which runs programming across city parks in New York city’s five boroughs, is running its largest schedule, with over 100 events, funded through a mixture for popular name acts, alongside generous contributions from private funding.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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