Michael Orlove Keeps Chicago Alive with Music

October 6, 2009

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Michael Orlove at the Chicago Cultural Center.

As part of Chicago Matters: Beyond Burnham, we're profiling local visionaries with an eye on our region's future. Today meet Michael Orlove. He's a city employee, in the Department of Cultural Affairs. But for more than 15 years he's put together some of the most exciting and diverse music programming in Chicago, much of it free to the public. Now the city's already strained coffers have been hit by a dismal economy. Alison Cuddy followed him through this year's World Music Festival to find out how municipal belt tightening is affecting Orlove's future.

MICHAEL ORLOVE: I assume this is it…one-thirty…two-oh-two. Cool!

The World Music Festival starts in less than 24 hours and Michael Orlove is taking care of some last minute business - picking up the car he and his staff will use throughout the event.

ORLOVE: Sometimes (laughs) they just give us whatever they have. We've gotten ones with sirens we've gotten ones with actual lights on top.

The car belongs to Orlove's employer, the City of Chicago. It has an official city plate so Orlove can park almost anywhere he likes. That might sound like a perk. But when you're overseeing a week-long festival involving over fifty performances in twenty-one venues scattered across the city, it's really more like a necessity. 

ORLOVE: There are always things that come up where we need to deliver things to different groups at venues. We want to meet the groups, say hello, be able to celebrate with them.

Orlove's been putting this celebration together for over a decade now. He's been with the City even longer. He's no high flying official. But from his small office in Chicago's Cultural Center Orlove has a huge impact on the city's cultural life. He fills Millennium Park with music and performances. Every summer he turns a sliver of Grant Park into a hot spot for dancing. And he keeps the Cultural Center humming with music year-round.

Orlove attributes all this to the license the City gave him back when he started in 1993.

ORLOVE: There was this incredible period of just taking a look at the cultural landscape out there and what was happening and what wasn't happening.

This year, what seemed to be happening was a smaller World Music Festival. Early in the planning stages Orlove thought he might have to cut it in half. 

ORLOVE: We got lucky it could have been a lot worse and I was pretty pessimistic about what this year would look like. And in the end it was a full-fledged Festival.

ambi: car

ORLOVE: What's up? Where is everybody?
HELEN: They're coming…

ambi everyone getting into the car

When we meet up again the Festival is underway and Orlove is picking up some of his staff. He works with a crew of four, including Brian Keigher, his right hand man. As with any long standing group they tend to talk over each other, especially when they're telling stories. Like the time Brian and Mike almost ran over Barack Obama.

ORLOVE: And he got out of his SUV on this side and just dashed across right here
BRIAN KEIGHER: Right here…we're like (squealing brakes sound) and he's like ‘Thank you!' for not killing him
ORLOVE: He said, 'My fault, my fault!'
KEIGHER: That was classic.

Tonight there are eight events and we're going to try and hit at least half of them. Our first stop is one of the new venues they've added - the beer garden at Navy Pier.

As we walk in, Orlove glad hands a few regulars.

ORLOVE: What's up? How you doing man – are you out here for the show? You're going to like these guys...

First time Festival-goer Esther Jones says she usually sticks to jazz and blues.

JONES: Uh-huh. But I'm sure I'll enjoy it because I love all music. 

ambi: fireworks

The fireworks start – they go off to the beats of Algerian DJ Cheb I Sabbah. Orlove's pleased.

ORLOVE: It's cool it's kind of interesting to see how people were moving to the music, a definite success and a first for us which is cool.

ambi: stage intro

Brian introduces another band  and then everyone heads for the car and the next venue – Uncommon Ground, a restaurant in Rogers Park on the city's North Side. Local band Mar Caribe is playing but as we pull up Orlove and crew seem just as excited about the food:

ORLOVE: Pig roast! Organic pig by the way.
ALLI: Ah, for real!?
BRIAN: Tonight its kosher pig…(laughs)

ambi out of car…music

The band wraps up right on time and the group decides to head west to a Latvian social club, for some gypsy music. But along the way an emergency springs up – a mixer for the night's final event isn't working. We drop two of the crew off and head on full speed.

ORLOVE:  This is where we need the siren.  We need to get a mixer, we need to get a mixer!

ambi into Cultural Center

The next time I see Orlove, he's out of the car but still on the move.

ORLOVE: You're going to get some exercise today (laughs). So this is where we're going to be selling beer and wine. We okay Tim?

He's on home turf at the Cultural Center, where nine different acts will wrap up the fest, from a Croatian a capella group to an American gospel singer.  Bulgarian singer Vlada Tomova is about to join her band for a warm-up .

VLADA TOMOVA: Everyone is very welcoming. The city is beautiful, very vibrant in so many ways. Just a great place to be…perfect for a world music festival!

This year Orlove reached out to other music festivals in the Midwest – artists like Tomova are more willing to travel if they have multiple gigs to play. But Orlove gives Chicagoans most of the credit for keeping this alive.  They keep coming out in droves – to the Festival and all the other music events he programs.

ORLOVE: You know if you told me ten years ago that I'd be presenting this Music Without Borders series to nine, ten thousand people I'd…think you were crazy.

The Cultural Center is packed all night, and it is amazing to walk by people forming hallway-long lines for music they've probably never heard before.  When it all's over, the lines start to form in front of Orlove.

ambi – crowd

Orlove is glowing, like a bride on a receiving line.

ORLOVE: It's the energy. It gives you hope that we're going to find additional sponsors and that funding to not only keep the festival alive, but expand it in the way we've always talked about.

A moment later Orlove's cell phone rings.

ambi: phone

And he's off, already on to the next project.