They call it the "Hawk,'' or at least Lou Rawls did in Dead End Street, his soulful rap ballad about growing up on the South Side. Rawls was referring to the winter wind off Lake Michigan that cuts like a razor. When I lived in Chicago, I would take the 55th Street bus to the Garfield El station, and I can remember many a January morning being so cold, no matter how bundled up, that I would cry while waiting in frozen agony at the bus stop. One winter day I saw a woman blown off her feet on the sidewalk by the Tribune Tower.
So here's my first piece of advice about paying a visit to Chicago: Don't do it in the winter. Try to visit in the fall or spring, when the abundant arts scene is in full swing, and the weather allows you to enjoy the city's extensive system of lakefront parks, such as its most spectacular downtown attraction, Millennium Park.
In September, when I was in Chicago for the first time in quite a few years, the city was enjoying a burst of Indian summer, ideal weather for the big cultural event of the season, the arrival of Riccardo Muti as the new music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. One Sunday afternoon, he led the orchestra in a rapturously received free concert in the Frank Gehry-designed bandshell in Millennium Park, which was jammed with about 25,000 people.
Several days later, Muti conducted his first subscription program as music director, and in a paradoxical way, its sheer eccentricity bodes well for his tenure, as long as the Italian maestro's health problems don't turn into an ongoing issue. It was a pleasure to experience a concert at Orchestra Hall, which is a compact space whose acoustics have been fiddled with almost continually since it opened in 1905. Getting to a seat in the upper balcony is a steep climb, but the sound is fine up there.
For his debut, Muti programmed Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. No surprise. The orchestra's famous brass section was born to shine in what Leonard Bernstein called the first psychedelic symphony. But where things got interesting was in the second piece on the program, Lelio, or the Return to Life, Berlioz's rarely performed sequel to Symphonie Fantastique, featuring narration by actor Gerard Depardieu. With the orchestra behind a scrim except for the finale, and the French actor cutting a magnificently ruined, clownish figure as he read from a script, this was a consummately theatrical production.
Though Lelio was a bit of a bore, beyond the echoes here and there of its illustrious predecessor, I loved what it said about Muti's vision for the orchestra. If the passionate performance of Berlioz's glorious flop is an indication, he is not simply going to play it safe and program a lot of beautiful music, but will push the audience with offbeat repertoire, and that should be exciting.
Some 10 days after that opening concert, Muti had to cut short his initial fall residency with the orchestra by three weeks because of a stomach ailment. The cancellation was a deflating note on which to end the 69-year-old conductor's debut as music director, and all eyes will be on his return to the podium in Chicago in February.
From Orchestra Hall, it's a short stroll along Michigan Avenue to three major attractions. I spent a Saturday going from one to another.
• For an arts-minded visitor to the city, the first stop should be the Chicago Cultural Center, completed in 1897 as the downtown library and now home to an information center stocked with a wealth of maps, brochures, schedules, laptops for public use and an expert staff to assist you in learning what's going on in the city and how best to access it. The center has a number of galleries (an exhibit on folk artist Howard Finster was up in September); its Preston Bradley Hall, which often has chamber music concerts, boasts the largest stained glass Tiffany dome in the world; and the movie theater is named after Claudia Cassidy, with a glamorous painting of the legendary Chicago performing arts critic in the lobby.
• The Art Institute of Chicago is one of those museums that bedazzles with its famous hoard: Nighthawks hangs a few steps away from American Gothic; pride of place in the Impressionism gallery belongs to A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Entire rooms are devoted to Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. The newest addition is the Modern Wing, opened last year and hailed for its utilization of natural light in the galleries, though the museum recently sued engineers for shoddy work on the expansion. The wing houses the collection of early 20th century European art and features the Nicholas Bridgeway, a pedestrian walkway into Millennium Park that provides a great view of the downtown skyline.
• Millennium Park, which missed the millennium by a few years (a $475 million project, it opened in 2004), is home to a pair of fabulous pieces of public art. One, the Crown Fountain, designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, is a postmodern commentary on the city's iconic Buckingham Fountain in nearby Grant Park. Set in a shallow reflecting pool, it consists of two glass towers displaying videos of hundreds of ordinary Chicagoans; every 10 minutes, a mouth puckers and water streams out. Indian artist Anish Kapoor is responsible for Cloud Gate, the wildly popular centerpiece of Millennium Park. A snapshot at "the Bean'' (a nickname Kapoor called "completely stupid'') is de rigueur for any Chicago visit.
Buildings, buildings, buildings
An architectural walking tour in Chicago is my idea of tourist paradise, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation offers a host of them, as well as boat tours on the Chicago River and bus tours. Here are a few of my favorite sights in the Loop.
• Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Building, 430 S Michigan Ave., completed in 1889. The history of Chicago architecture begins here.
• High atop the Chicago Board of Trade (1930), a beautiful Art Deco building at the foot of LaSalle Street, is a 31-foot aluminum statue of Ceres, the goddess of grain.
• The plaza of the Richard J. Daley Center, at Washington and Dearborn streets, is dominated by a monumental steel sculpture by Picasso. The artist, who never visited Chicago, didn't say what the sculpture was meant to represent. The best guess I've heard was that it was the ghost of a steer killed at the old Union Stock Yards.
• Aqua, 430 E Waterside Drive, is an 82-story high-rise that opened last year just north of Millennium Park. It's the tallest building designed by an American architectural firm run by a woman, Jeanne Gang, who says the undulating balconies were inspired by limestone outcroppings along the Great Lakes.
Great theater town
Chicago is the theater capital of the United States. Other cities also have thriving theater scenes — Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston, San Francisco — but Chicago's is simply bigger and more varied, and it is much less expensive than New York. Since the 1960s the city has spawned an array of important playwrights (David Mamet), companies (Second City and Steppenwolf) and actors, such as John Malkovich, Glenne Headly, Joan Allen, William Macy, Joe Mantegna, Fred Willard and Gary Sinise.
Though many Chicago-bred actors move on to Broadway and Hollywood, some of the stars keep up their hometown ties. In September, Laurie Metcalf (Jackie on Roseanne), a longtime member of the Steppenwolf ensemble, was back with the company to play a suburban neurotic in a disappointing new play, Detroit, by Lisa D'Amour.
Mamet didn't stay long in Chicago after he hit it big with plays like Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, but his terse, profane voice helped to define the rough-and-tumble style of theater in the city. Last month, I was knocked out by a production of Oleanna, Mamet's explosive play on sexual and academic politics at the American Theater Company. In April and May, the company will stage another Chicago standard, as playwright Jim Jacobs returns to his hometown to put on the 40th anniversary production of Grease, originally set on the city's gritty Northwest Side before Hollywood turned the musical into a California fantasy.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater has the most spectacular setting of any company in town: Navy Pier, the complex on Lake Michigan that features a 15-story Ferris wheel. Romeo and Juliet, in a highly physical production clearly influenced by West Side Story, opened the season in the company's 500-seat main stage, modeled on Stratford-on-Avon's Swan Theatre. In the lobby hangs Sonnet, Chicago artist Ed Paschke's fluorescent green painting of a three-faced Bard. The company also brings in productions from around the world, such as the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch, an innovative account of the Iraq war, March 29-April 10.
Mary Zimmerman is Chicago's director of the moment. Her breakthrough production Metamorphoses, staged in and around a pool of water, went to Broadway, where she won the 2002 Tony Award for best direction, and she frequently works at the Metropolitan Opera these days. So it was a treat to see her revival of Candide, Leonard Bernstein's musical on "the best of all possible worlds,'' at the Goodman, the city's oldest and largest resident theater.
Zimmerman is famous for eye-popping but old-fashioned theatrical effects, and her staging of Candide was notable for its simple, effective use of props and stagecraft, such as model ships on poles used to depict ocean voyages, the bowling balls with which war was conducted, the veil draped over Cunogonde in her reunification scene with Candide and yellow flowers sprouting from the set's wood-paneled walls during Make Our Garden Grow. When Candide sets sail for Venice, he acts out the journey by walking atop a row of chairs. When Maximilian is stabbed, a bolt of red cloth unrolls from his chest. Chicago theater regulars complain that Zimmerman is repeating herself with such devices, but they worked for me.
Candide continues at the Goodman through Oct. 31 and then transfers to the Shakespeare Theatre Co. in Washington, Nov. 26-Jan. 9.
South Side tour
I am partial to the South Side, since I lived in Hyde Park, the neighborhood around the University of Chicago that has long been an island of diversity and relative affluence in the ghetto. Though some areas south of the Loop can be dicey, there are treasures to be discovered.
• If you happen to be in town for a trade show at McCormick Place, four vast structures that make up the biggest U.S. convention center, you're not far from one of the birthplaces of the Chicago blues at 2120 S Michigan Ave. This two-story brick building was the Chess Records studio, where Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Etta James and others made their records.
• The National Museum of Mexican Art is the jewel of Pilsen, once a Czech neighborhood and now the center of the city's large Mexican-American population. The museum is free and puts on colorful, well-conceived exhibits, such as "Vida Breve: Day of the Dead 2010," running through Dec. 12.
• No exploration of Chicago would be complete without a trip to Bridgeport, the Irish-American working-class enclave that has given the city five mayors, including Richard J. and Richard M. Daley, who, between them, have held the job for more than 40 years. An American flag hangs outside the brick bungalow at 3536 S Lowe Ave., the Daley homeplace. Not far away is Schaller's Pump, the oldest bar in Chicago, dating to 1881, a political watering hole and hangout for White Sox fans.
• Hyde Park's most famous resident is President Barack Obama, whose house at 5046 S Greenwood Ave. is surrounded by Secret Service barricades. The neighborhood is known for its bookstores, and Powell's, on 57th Street, is a haven for used and rare books. The nearby 57th Street Books has an excellent children's?s section.
One night I went to see The Comedy of Errors at the Court Theatre, a 50-year-old institution in Hyde Park. It was a madcap take on Shakespeare by one of Chicago's hottest directors, Sean Graney. I thought the six-actor production ran out of steam halfway through its farcical tale of mistaken identities and quick costume changes, but it did give me an opportunity to ponder one of the milestones of American theater.
Just a few blocks from the Court is the site where you could say that modern comedy was born. On July 5, 1955, a cabaret theater company called the Compass made its debut in a storefront at 1152 E 55th St. — it's now a fire station — according to A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago by Richard Christiansen, longtime critic with the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Tribune.
The players did skits like "Football at the University of Chicago," which spoofed the school's geeky students, and took suggestions from the audience.
The Compass went on to become the Second City, the improv comedy juggernaut whose various incarnations included an amazing assortment of actors, writers and directors: Mike Nichols and Elaine May; Joan Rivers and David Steinberg; and eventually John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and others who joined the Not Ready for Prime Time Players of Saturday Night Live.
"Through every change in manners and mores and casts, the laughs kept coming,'' Christiansen writes. ". . . the influence of the Second City and its alumni is essential.''
Second City continues to flourish on the North Side, but its roots are in Hyde Park.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.