Saturday, November 15, 2014

Feigning Wealthy for Halloween: A Night at the Driehaus Museum

Awaiting the Swing Gitan Concert in the Ballroom

As I am reluctantly putting away my Halloween decorations and swapping them for Thanksgiving trimmings (obviously desperately wishing it was not already winter weather-wise), I realized we forgot to share what MuseumX did for Hallow’s Eve!  For Halloween, we pretended that we were among the wealthiest of members of the upper class in late 19th century Chicago.  Fortunately for us (get it), that did not require us to dress in period-appropriate costume, but it was still an immersive experience nevertheless!

The Driehaus Museum held a concert one Friday evening last month, featuring the musical talents of Alfonso Ponticelli and Swing Gitan, a Chicago gypsy jazz band.  For those not familiar, gypsy jazz is a style of music combining gypsy musical elements (including some gypsy songs, and instruments such as the violin) with jazz standards and swing elements, played on acoustic instruments.  It’s a style chartered by Django Reinhardt (the Original Gypsy) in France during the 1930s, and yet, we learned that night, still sounds and feels completely fresh and extemporaneous.

Being that we arrived late to the chapel-style event seating, we didn’t grab a great view (or photo) of the band, or the instruments.  The photo atop this post was taken from our seats toward the back of the room.  You can see that the staff added a bluish green filter to the lighting, which was perfect for the mood of the music.  Generally speaking, gypsy songs tend to favor the minor key, and there are dark elements to the tone of the music (the song “Dark Eyes,” for example).  So, the bluish tinge upon the dark mahogany wood of the third floor Ballroom lent a lovely setting for the moody and music. Fortunately, the acoustics were plenty good from where we sat! 

Ponticelli, the lead guitarist of Swing Gitan, and started off the concert with a solo song.  Afterwards he introduced the rest of the quintet, who played rhythym guitar, bass, violin, and a cimbalom.  If the setting of this concert wasn’t enough to take you to another time, the cimbalom definitely was.  This instrument sort of looks like a small piano with strings across the top of it, and is played by striking beaters against those strings.  It is hardly ever used in contemporary music, and was incredible to hear live.  The talent and artistry among this group of musicians is truly amazing, and I’m so glad I got to witness that in person! 

If in our last post I lamented about history not being well preserved enough, the Driehaus Museum offers a fabulous counterpoint to that complaint.  The house itself-a late 19th century Italianate mansion once belonging to Samuel M. Nickerson-has been fully restored and preserved, not to mention furnished and decorated with period-appropriate pieces by the Richard H. Driehaus foundation.  Although we did not have enough time during this visit to fully explore the floors of the museum, we do have several pictures of rooms on the first level of the mansion.  Here you can see a photo of the Gallery, underneath the beautiful stained glass dome.  The attention to detail here with the furnishing and decorating is truly exquisite. You feel as if you had walked into the Nickerson’s house only seconds after they left it.   

And, though a prime exemplar of historic preservation, the Driehaus Museum is among Chicago’s most immersive.  Imagine your grandmother’s carefully decorated living, which she may or may not have taken precautions to preserve herself (vinyl sofa covers and/or carpet protectors).  Imagine the rebuking you would get trying to play or, heaven forbid, eat in that room… Talk about a scare!  Yet here at the Driehaus museum, you can walk among these opulent decorative pieces, and are even invited to have a drink inside the Ballroom—no vinyl coverings to be found!  Here, if you want to get closer to a piece at the museum, you will most likely not be stopped by glass casing, nor an alarm warning you that you are too close.  So, although the period and decorations of the mansion and the glory years of gypsy jazz were not contemporary, the Driehaus was a fabulous setting for this jazz concert.  Why shouldn’t a museum known for historic preservation host a band keeping the music of the 1930s alive?  There was no costume necessary for us to feel as though we were living history!

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