Women in Math: The Symposium

On Saturday, Tori and I hosted a symposium to celebrate Women in Math – sponsored by the UChicago AWM.  We had undergrads, grad students, a post-doc, and tenured faculty talking about their own research (in the case of women), and the work of female mathematicians (in the case of the men). Unfortunately, we started a little too early in the morning – attendance was very low for these talks, which were universally excellent.

In the afternoon we had a larger attendance.  Most of the talks were more about women in math than about math itself.  Kiki Zissimopoulus ran an excellent session on how to teach to an inclusive classroom. We explored what an inclusive classroom is, what constitutes ‘mathematical thinking,’ and ways that we can foster an inclusive environment in our own classes.  I was excited to apply some of these ideas to my own teaching – especially the idea of strategic learners and deep learners, and trying to encourage deep learning techniques (returning to old homework problems, repairing errors, etc).

We also had a fascinating session by Stephen Meyer, of UChicago Astrophysics, about Implicit Bias.  He gave an interesting presentation, which centered on a study of letters of recommendation for male and female medical candidates.  The statistical differences are striking, and hard to ignore: twice as many letters for women as for men included ‘doubt raisers’ – comments like, “She worked hard on projects she accepted,” which are interpreted negatively, while offering surface support. Only 3% of the letters for women referred to them by their titles, while 12% of letters for men did so – and there was no difference in the number of women who had such titles compared to the number of men. Letters for women are much more likely to address training, personal life, and teaching than letters for men.  On the other hand, male letters tend to address research much more than female letters. Perhaps the most interesting method of analysis was looking at the most common words following possessives: “her research,” “his colleagues,” etc.  Overwhelmingly these words followed social stereotypes.  All of this is true regardless of the gender of the recommender – one of the most insidious aspects of implicit bias.  And, as Professor Meyer pointed out, this effect is multiplied by the biases of the readers. On a related note, this is a cool resource (shown to me by Kiki Zissimopoulus) about gender biases revealed by word usage in teacher reviews.

We also had a great session on Impostor Syndrome, run by Claudio.  He ran it as a workshop, and at one point asked us to turn to our neighbors, look them in the eye, and tell them something that we are proud of.  I found this incredibly difficult – even though he had told us to do it, even though I knew they would not think of it as bragging, even though I knew they wouldn’t laugh or make a face. Even so, I was near tears by the time I said anything. What was interesting (and surprising) to me was that everyone in our little group had a quote-unquote “rational” for thinking they did not really belong in the UChicago PhD program. I was able to look at my fellow grad students and see that they were being absurd – they are excellent mathematicians and well suited to UChicago – but I can’t do the same for myself. Very frustrating, to know that one is being irrational and yet be unable to escape from those thoughts.

We closed the night with mathematical trivia, put together by Mathilde. The questions were perfectly chosen (though I may be a little biased since my team won).  Questions ranged from mathematical trivia (How many 4-dimensional platonic solids are there?), to historical personages (I am a French mathematician whose hand was buried apart from my body.  Who am I?), to estimation questions (How many kangaroos are there in Australia?). We had a great time, and it was fun to get competitive over something small.  My team won a bag of tropical fruit as a prize – a UChicago math department tradition started by accident in my first year.

All in all, I think we did a good job of the symposium, given that it was planned in less than two months.  We even (after adjusting slightly) had the right amount of food! (Plus some non-perishables that we’ll use in our next event.) Goodness – I was exhausted afterwards, primarily over the stress of making sure everything ran smoothly.  We luckily had a lot of volunteers to help run each classroom, deal with setting up projectors, and even clean up the food after meals. I have no idea how anyone can run a several-day conference! But it was a great experience, and next year we’ll do more early planning, get more speakers, and all in all have a great time.


Intelligence Squared: Has the political establishment failed America?

I went to a debate on February 23, hosted by the UChicago Institute for Politics and Inteligence Squared.  IQ2 hosts “Oxford-style debates”; there are two teams of two people.  Each speaker makes a 15 minute opening statement, followed by a round of questions from the audience, and then 5 minute closing statements from each speaker.

The topic on hand was “Has the political establishment failed America?” It’s a wishy-washy topic, and hard to get a handle on – who counts as “political establishment,” what does “failed” mean, and even what does “America” mean (citizens, or the idea of America). I find it hard to grapple with questions like this. On one hand, there is a sense in which any question precisely worded would have a straight-forward answer, or at least it would have a series of studies that argue for opposing views.  In this case, a debate would be either pointless or dull.  But if you go too far in blurriness of a question, then each side can choose an interpretation that best suits their case, and thus talk past each other.  There was a lot of “Just because the political establishment has not always failed America, or just because the political establishment doesn’t fail America in every way, does not mean that the political establishment has not failed America” on one side, and on the other, claims that “‘Political establishment’ is such a meaningless phrase, and is up for so much interpretation, that the only response to this is to vote no.” And so the debate, which should be a coming together of opinions and ideas to create a consensus, devolves into a battle of who can persuade the most people that their definition is the best. Both sides talk past each other.

The Pro team: Michael Eric Dyson (Georgetown University) and William Howell (UChicago).

Michael Eric Dyson, of the Georgetown Sociology department, was a fiery speaker and incredible orator.  His words were rhythmic and alliterative, emotionally powerful and compelling.  When I took a moment to step back and think about what he was saying, I realized that he wasn’t really addressing the question at hand – he was talking about Trump and the Republican party in general.  Though they are the current political establishment, you can’t address their failings and not address the system that brought them to power. Just because he was such a good speaker, here is a video of him talking about racism and Trump.

The other member of the Pro team, William Howell, is a member of the UChicago Harris School in Public Policy. He was my favorite of the debaters, because he stayed on the question the entire time.  He also didn’t attempt to evade the question by arguing that we shouldn’t be answering it all – he accepted the premise of the debate and tried to live within those confines.  Unfortunately, he did seem a bit arrogant.  He was also pushing for broad institutional reform – he even implied changing our entire form of government – which was a bit more extreme than I am ready to support.

The Con team: Jennifer Rubin (The Washington Post) and Eric Oliver (UChicago).

Eric Oliver gave the opening statement for the Con team.  Admittedly, following Mr Dyson is a big task.  However, his attempt to equate anyone who supports the motion with Donald Trump and his supporters was logically flawed in the extreme.  Indeed, while the Pro teams most pervasive problem was trying to turn the debate into a referendum on Trump and his policies, the Con team’s was over-inflating the facts and an inability to wrestle with inconsistencies.  Yes, Donald Trump ran on subverting the establishment.  That does not mean that President Donald Trump is not now a part of that establishment.

The other half of the team, Jennifer Rubin, is a conservative columnist for the Washington Post. I found her to be a poor speaker and prone to logical fallacies, but I worry that I only think that because she is (1) female, and (2) conservative.  I so fundamentally disagreed with much of what she said that I’m not sure I can be an objective judge of her abilities.

Intelligence Squared debates are won by convincing more people to join your side.  They poll the audience at the beginning and end of the debate, and compare the scores. I began as an “Undecided” voter, and ended supported the Pro team.  But much of that support came not so much from agreeing with their arguments, but disagreeing with the Con side’s approach.  Both teams made valid points throughout; the political system is failing America in terms of discrimination of all sorts, environmental planning, and protections from big companies.  But on the other hand, American quality of life goes up and down periodically, and it would be wrong to place that at the foot of the political establishment.  Especially since it is the establishment that has stepped in to stop so many of the most egregious outrages – the courts stopping Trump’s travel ban, the federal government (evnetually) stepping in for Flint, MI.

So, who won?

The final result was that 4% of respondents switched from Pro to Undecided, and the rest stayed the same.  So Con technically won, I suppose?

I got to ask a question at the end of the debate. I asked to what extent each team’s argument was historical – did the Pro team think there was ever a time when the political establishment was not failing America? Did the Con side think the political establishment had ever failed America? And if yes, when did it change?  Unfortunately, neither side really answered my question; in fact, both sides seemed to argue the opposition’s point! Afterwards, at a reception hosted by the IoP, one of the speakers noticed me and told me that I had asked an excellent question.  Very flattering – but next time, please answer it!

Women in Math

On Thursday I helped run a Wine and Cheese event in the math department, hosted by the UChicago chapter of the AWM. The goal of the event was to bring the community together, and try to encourage conversation about women in math.  We offered snacks and drinks, a venue for conversation, and filled the chalk boards with statistics about women in math, and STEM fields more generally.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these statistics is that men and women are approximately equally represented in math in high school and earlier, but start to disappear from the math community as time goes on.  Perhaps this indicates a problem with the attrition rate (prompting questions like, “Why are so many women leaving math?” and “How can we adapt the norms of the math community to make it easier for women to stay?”).  But on the other hand, it may indicate that we are finally turning a corner in getting women interested in math, and all that is needed now is time for the current class of high-schoolers to start to permeate the upper levels of academia. The way to tell would be to look at similar statistics from several decades ago, but I don’t know where to find such information.

Some women in STEM statistics.

We were moderately successful in prompting conversations on women in math.  I overhead several groups discussing whether representation of women in math was something that needed to be “fought” for. This reminded me of an excellent post by Vi Hart and Nicky Case. They created applets the show how even a very slight preference for living with “people like you” leads to segregated communities. It also shows that it takes an active desire for integration to overcome existing segregation. While their original intent was to use this as a parable about racial segregation in housing, I think it also applies to issues of under-representation in math (and other academic fields, more generally).  Given that math is a primarily male field, it will take an active desire to include women – women will need to embrace working in a (currently) male-dominated field, and men will need to embrace the diversity that women offer.

More statistics on women in STEM!

It’s good to get so many people together and talking about something that is usually avoided. It’s hard to talk about representation of women, or to talk about historical female figures in mathematics.  I have heard many comments along the lines of, “It’s not fair how easy it is for women to get into the top graduate programs,” , or “That historical female mathematician gets more credit than she deserves.” In addition to being incredibly discouraging personally (did I only get into graduate school because I’m a woman?), the former (1) is simply wrong if you consider the percentage of graduate students who are male versus the percentage who are female, and (2) ignores the difficulty of remaining in math long enough to even apply for graduate school. While the former is more difficult to hear as a woman in math, I think the latter is more insidious.  It forgets that much of the work women did was published (with or without permission) by men, and credit was given to the male authors. Perhaps the most famous example of this in a STEM field is the work by Rosalind Franklin that was used without citation (and possibly without permission, though this is disputed) by Watson and Crick. Part of the reason for this was at least partially due to the misogynistic views of Watson toward Franklin. It also forgets that many women were explicitly banned from membership in mathematical societies, denied university diplomas (if they were even allowed to attend university), and therefore unable to support themselves as mathematicians unless they were independently wealthy.  And this of course ignores the usual lack of education of women and societal expectations that women would be uneducated, quiet, and family-focused.  In this context, a woman producing any math is impressive, even if it is not the most incredibly unique work of the time.

Even more!

All of this is to say, I’m excited for the Women in Math symposium the UChicago AWM is hosting next week. Most of the speakers will actually be talking about historical female mathematicians or their work, and I’m looking forward to hearing how this is presented.

After the event, we found a photo of a former graduate class and their pet goldfish. He appears to have been named C. Abel.

Two Performances

960On Thursday, I finally got a chance to see Hamilton, the hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Overall, it lived up to the hype – which is a significant accomplishment!  I enjoyed the music more than I expected, and loved how intricate the text could be because of the freedom of rap. Wayne Brady performed as Aaron Burr – a surprising choice that ended up working incredibly well. The best thing about the libretto is the depth of  Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. While Hamilton is of course the hero of the story, we are shown some of his flaws: hot-headedness, arrogance, limitless appetite. Similarly, the supposed villain of the show, Aaron Burr, is presented as a Salieri-esque character, a la Amadeus. He was meant to be a success, but was overshadowed by a younger, more brilliant replacement before he ever got to make his mark. It’s an interesting contrast in today’s political climate as well – the man with strong principles who is unwilling to compromise for political advantage, versus the man who compromises so much that his beliefs are unknown.

The Schuyler sisters, performed by Karen Olivo, Ari Afsar, and Samantha Marie Ware. Photo credit to TimeOut Chicago and Joan Marcus.

The performers were of course incredibly.  Karen Olivo stood out at Angelica Schuyler, especially in her performance of “Satisfied.” The role of Angelica is overshadowed by that of Eliza, but it she is a much meatier character; a woman who gives up one type of love for another, and who can engage with Hamilton on his politics. Eliza, performed by Ari Afsar, never really grows beyond her first meeting with Hamilton when she confesses herself “Helpless” over her love for him. Both women had strong voices, but I preferred Ms Olivo’s less strident tone. Miguel Cervantes was excellent as Hamilton, giving a convincing performance throughout.  Jonathon Kirkland stepped out during intermission, leaving Carl Clemons-Hopkins to replace him as George Washington.  While he got off to a rocky start, he showed off his gorgeous voice in the closing of “One Last Time” and finished the show on key. Thomas Jefferson, played by Chris De’Sean Lee (who also played Lafayette), was a hit in his elaborate purple costume. But King George, brilliantly acted by Alexander Gemignani, stole the show with each of his entrances. Attired in a red suit with ermine-trimmed robe and a crown, and brandishing a scepter, he carried himself like a ballet-dancer, tip-toeing from one part of the stage to another.  His first number, “You’ll be Back,” is full of inherently funny lines: “I’ll send a fully armed battalion, to remind you of my love.” Delivered in manner that was simultaneously serious and campy, King George was portrayed as a bumbling and dim leader who could not see history staring him in the face.

Miguel Cervantes as Hamilton, and the Chicago cast. Photo credit to TimeOut Chicago and Joan Marcus.

Then on Friday, I attended an altogether different type of concert: an evening of art songs, performed by Sandrine Piau (soprano) and Susan Manoff (piano).  The program, Apres un reve, focuses on dreams and love. It is inspired by her recent CD of the same title. Ms Piau’s soaring voice was simultaneously intimate and powerful, stylized and natural.  Her perfect technique, round sound, and controlled vibrato was all the more stunning after seeing Hamilton (which is not to say that the performers in Hamilton were unskilled – they are completely different art forms and, in many ways, incomparable). What I loved most about the concert was the apparent friendship and obvious communication between Ms Piau and Susan Manoff, the collaborative pianist. When a cell phone rang at the end of Romance (Debussy), Ms Piau and Ms Manoff exchanged grins and laughs.

Sandrine Piau

Throughout, each song was delivered directly and conversationally. The audience recognized the humorous moments by Ms Piau’s delivery, without needing to read the texts. Ms Manoff’s piano playing was virtuosic. She perfectly balanced supporting a primary vocal line with artistry and life. This was especially evident in the show-stopping Hexenlied by Felix Mendelssohn.

Susan Manoff

As a soprano, I had major repertoire envy, especially for La courte paille (Poulenc), a fun collection of child-themed songs. I was also jealous of Ms Piau’s comfort and impeccable technique.  Throughout her range, her tone remained so even and round. High notes floated and rang in the large hall. Vowels were so solid that I felt I could reach out an touch them.

They changed the order of the final set of Poulenc songs, choosing the start with the cabaret-esque (and oh-so-very-French) Les chemins d’amour, and closing with Sanglots, whose texts speaks of the unity of humanity, and the despair that comes from forgetting this. It made less sense musically, but politically was an interesting choice.  The thunderous applause caused them to return for two encores, however: Fantoches from Les fetes galantes (Debussy), and Sleep (Ivor Gurney). Sleep was especially moving; at the conclusion, there was a gap of silence as the entire audience breathed before breaking into applause.

Embed from Getty Images

Most of the program can be heard via Spotify on the album Apres un reve by Sandrine Piau and Susan Manoff. I especially recommend Hexenlied and Nachtlied (Mendelssohn), and Les chemins d’amour (Poulenc). I also particularly enjoyed La courte paille (Poulenc), and Wasserrose (Strauss), though I can’t find recordings of these by Ms Piau.

Skiing in Door County

I went home for two days to get some cross-country skiing in.  I love skiing – it’s peaceful, steady, exhausting, fast…everything good. The steady action is almost meditative.  I’ve been skiing since I was tiny – my parents have photos of me in a little pink and purple snowsuit, toddling along on my miniature skis.  But before I could even walk, my parents were pulling me in a pulk – sled you attach to your waist and pull behind you.  They were traditionally used to transport supplies and people during ski journeys in the Nordic countries.  I have vague memories of getting strapped into the pulk, feeling the plastic of the sled flex under my back as we moved, hearing the roar of the sliding snow, and watching snowflakes fall from the sky and onto my face.

I never pulled a pulk until this winter, when my friend Liz purchased one for her baby Grant.  Liz is learning how to skate ski, so while she gets her feet under her I get to pull the baby.  It’s a different motion than skiing without the pulk – you have to be more smooth, move your hips differently so that you aren’t constantly jerking the sled. Grant is funny – he likes to sing along with the sliding sound for a bit, and then he falls asleep. The pulk doesn’t cause much of a problem on the flats or downhills, but going up a steep hill can be a battle! Sometimes I have to let Dad pull for me, when I am too tired.

Dad, Liz, and the Baby G at Snowkraft.

I love to ski at Snowkraft Nordic in Sturgeon Bay. A local man runs it.  He spends hours and hours making sure that the trail surface is perfectly smooth, the grass just the right softness, the trees trimmed to perfection so that you can ski there when nowhere else has snow.  He goes and grooms at 2am, when the snow is coldest, to keep the trails as perfect as possible. The result is some of the best ski trails in the state.  And because of the careful maintenance, they can be skiied on when nowhere else has snow.  He also uses up every inch of his land to make fun, twisty trails that make good use of the natural terrain. The Orchard trails are built along a ridge, so as you travel east to west you climb a surprisingly steep grade! Then you turn around and whoosh back down the hill, speeding around S-bends and banked turns. The trails in the pines are flatter, but also beautiful, fast, and impeccably groomed.  I can’t wait to get back!

Snowkraft ski trails.  The Orchard is hilly!

Solving Problems

It’s so hard to explain what math research is like.  For some reason, people seem to assume it involves doing long, complicated calculations; perhaps because that was what they found difficult about math in school.  In reality, long and complicated calculations are performed by computers.  We’ve gotten much better at automating those processes – it’s really stunning what computers can do these days.  Every once in a while I stop taking it for granted, just for a moment, and remember how powerful these ubiquitous tools really are. Anyway, this post is going to be a bit of a philosophical ramble about the nature of math reasoning followed by a (charming) anecdote about how I proved my first little theorem of my graduate career.

In fact, the difficulty of math is much more about figuring out how to prove something, and less about the actual argument.  Consider any of the theorems you learned in school – the Pythagorean Theorem for triangles, for example.  This proof is taught to,  and understood by, children under the age of eighteen! The argument itself is not so difficult – you follow some logical steps and end up at the result. There are literally hundreds of proofs.  But now imagine that you are discovering this theorem for the first time.  You have noticed a pattern in the relationships between the lengths of sides of a triangle.  You can’t find any counterexamples, so you think that it might be universally true.  But you don’t know, so you set out to prove the general concept.  How do you do it? If someone from the future were to show up and explain why it’s true, you would understand, just like the kids in school do.  But there isn’t  a time-travelling teacher – and you have this niggling worry in the back of your mind that it might not be true at all. The difficult part of the proving something is not following the logic; it’s figuring out which logic to follow.

I spent the past few days working feverishly to try to complete a proof. As usual in math research, this was an emotional rollercoaster.  Every supposed breakthrough is followed by the discovery of an error. But one nice thing about struggling with how to prove something is that as you play with a mathematical object, you start to understand more and more about it.  Eventually you can usually convince yourself that something is true, even if you have no formal proof for it. You get excited, and then discouraged, but even when you realize your argument is flawed, you can see that a similar argument ought to work.

This kept happening to me while I was solving this problem.  I had one insight – that graphs can be either fat and round, or long and skinny.  As obvious as that sounds, after that realization I knew that I would be able to solve my problem.  I’m trying to generalize an argument made by two other mathematicians, and I knew that this was the way to do it – it was too similar, too elegant not to be.  I did pages and pages of calculations and estimates, drew diagram after diagram.  But I couldn’t quite get what I was looking for.

Two pages of the notebook I almost filled over the past three days. I especially like the comments to myself, to help me navigate these notes in the future.

On Tuesday, I thought I had it.  I tested all the cases, did all the calculations, checked for obvious errors – it looked good, so I emailed my advisor that I had something to show him.  On Tuesday night, I found the first error.  Talk about emotional turmoil!  So I spent another few hours brainstorming ways to fix it. None of them seemed to work.  They were all reasonable, but just didn’t work out in the end, or relied on a claim that seemed like it should be true but that I couldn’t prove.  I went to bed disappointed (and couldn’t sleep, so I got up and did another hour of work before going back to bed).  The next morning, I went back to some of those ideas.  “Maybe one of these can be massaged until it works,” I thought. They’re all reasonable; surely something can be fixed.  But to my chagrin, none of them worked. When I went to bed on Wednesday, I thought about my problem and discovered another error.  (Luckily, when I got up to write it down, I realized that it didn’t matter, and actually made my life easier.) On Thursday, I decided to brute-force one method; to apply as much heavy machinery to it as it took to make the argument work.  Up to a single claim, I had the argument.  But I couldn’t prove this claim.  It seemed reasonable, but that wasn’t enough.  I took it to a professor, who agreed that it seemed reasonable but didn’t have an argument for it.  I took it to a fellow graduate student, who said that he might have a sketch of an argument, but wasn’t sure.  I started to feel more confident.  I took it to two post-docs, who agreed that it seemed reasonable, and then stood at a chalkboard with me for 40 minutes trying to prove it.  We couldn’t do it.  I asked my advisor, who told me that it was indeed an interesting question (which was a relief, to know that it wasn’t completely trivial!), but that he didn’t know the answer.  I started to get hopeful.  But then one of the post-docs came and showed me a counter-example.  My claim was not true, my argument failed. Ten minutes later, I had the actual solution. It was easy, straightforward, elegant. I wrote it up, checked it, and sent it to my advisor.

More of the work, demonstrating the messy parts of the process (at left) and the attempt to write this up in an organized manner (at right).


My understanding is that this is normal – that math research is full of ups and downs, false starts and blind alleys.  I think it also highlights two things in particular: the first is the importance of collaboration.  Throughout the process, I talked about my problem with friends.  Explaining my ideas to someone else helped crystallize them, and they could help point out potential flaws or confusions.  And for this final claim that my friend disproved, I wouldn’t have found that counterexample without her. The second thing is the importance of perseverance.  There were a lot of setbacks in this process – and I’m not done with my proof yet.  I’ve done half of the first step of (at least) three.  It’s great, and I’m incredibly pleased, but it’s just a battle, not the whole war. Luckily, I enjoy this process and I think my problem is interesting, so perseverance isn’t much of a challenge.  It’s easy to get discouraged of course, but as soon as one method fails another idea pops into my head, and I have to start exploring it right away. And it helps that  I can feel it as I get closer to a solution, so that even if I hit a setback I know that the right answer is just around the corner.

Winter Vegetable Soup

I managed today to make an attractive soup, after several months of producing only “punishment soup,” as my beloved SO refers to them.  I will not include any photos of punishment soup – suffice it to say that putting red cabbage and potatoes together in a soup does not lead to an appealing meal.

My recipe today came from this website.  The most interesting ingredient is the cinnamon. I have no idea what cinnamon is doing in a tomato based soup.  I can’t tell if I can taste it or not, but it smelled nice when I put it in.


Tchai was pretty sure that the pancetta was meant to be for him, but when I gave him a piece he ended up abandoning it on the carpet.  I should have predicted this, but his little cat face was so sincere.


olive oil
3 oz pancetta, chopped
1 Spanish onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves
1 peeled, cubed acorn squash
6 small peeled, cubed red potatos
1/2 c diced carrots
1 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp thyme
1 (14 oz) can diced tomatoes
4 diced Campari tomatoes
1 qt chicken broth
4 c chopped kale
1 (15 oz) can butter beans


Heat olive oil in a deep pot over medium-high heat.  Add pancetta and stir until it releases its fats and starts to smell nice.  Add the onion and garlic, and saute until the onions go translucent.  Add squash, potatoes, carrots, basil, cinnamon, and thyme.  Cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add tomatoes, cook 2 minutes.  Stir in the broth.  Bring to a boil, then simmer 10 minutes.  Add kale and simmer until it relaxex (about 5 minutes).  Add the beans, and simmer until potatoes and kale are tender (5 minutes).

Chicago Voices Concert

The Chicago Voices concert on February 4, 2017 aimed to showcase the talent and breadth of Chicago singers, all in a single concert.  It managed to do that admirably, though several obvious performers were conspicuously absent (Kanye West, Chance the Rapper). The Lyric Opera House was transformed from a theater to a concert arena in a surprisingly effective way – lights danced and smoke filled the colorful but muted stage.

The show opened with Shemekia Copeland singing “The Battle is Over (But the War Goes On)” – a rousing song with political undertones that pervaded the show,  more or less subtly depending on the performer. The power of Shemekia’s voice is incredible – you can feel her tearing each note in two as she sings, without any sign of strain or difficulty.  She is a performer for whom a live performance gives so much more than any studio recording could offer.

She was followed by Kurt Elling.  His improv scat was enjoyable, but his voice, carriage, and song selection made you feel like you had just stepped out of a time machine.  Lovely, but more than one person commented to me, “I didn’t know there were still people who did that.”

Renee Fleming made a beautiful first entrance, wearing a glittering green Vivienne Westwood gown, in a tribute to the late great Mary Garden.  A recording of Mary Garden singing Beau Soir began as Renee Fleming walked on stage.  The recording faded out, and Renee picked up the song and carried it to the end.  Beautifully done, and by far the most clever use of multi-media I’ve seen in a concert.  However, she followed it with a rendition of “Summertime” that was even more self-indulgent that that piece usually is.  And given that this was at a mostly white concert about Chicago music, it struck a wrong note with me.

Jessie Mueller performed “She Used To Be Mine,” the hit song from her current hit musical, Waitress.  Jessie really showed why she won a Tony – she showed all of her vocal tricks in this one song, while exuding pathos. How she expressed a reluctant pregnancy while wearing a cut-out dress that revealed her perfect figure is

Perhaps the most emotional song of the night was “Hello In There,” performed by an aging John Prine. How we wrote this and performed it 46 years ago in 1971, I don’t know.  But now, as an elderly man still agilely plucking the strings of his acoustic guitar, the song holds a personal touch.  The entire house was as hushed as I have ever heard it, as though nobody wanted to end that moment.

Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco sang “Kick, Push,” a love-story based around a skateboard.  He brought energy and style to the stage, but it’s hard to imagine a more incongruous sight than a rapper on an opera stage, performing to an aging white audience.  It was obvious that the organizers were avoiding obvious political statements and adult-only performances, so the world of rap was limited.  However, it was perhaps the most representative performance of Chicago today, and it’s a shame he only performed the one song.

Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child fame sang gospel, supported by the Voices of Trinity Mass Choir. She did as much as she could with a relatively small voice, and she led the choir with energy.  The Handsome Family performed their haunting hit “Far From Any Road.”  While Brett Sparks’ deep voice was compelling, if not up to the technical skills of the other performers, Rennie Sparks was the obvious weak point of the show.  Their songs and lyrics are compelling, but it was unfair to ask Rennie Sparks to sing “My Turn Baby” with powerhouses Jessie Mueller and Shemekia Copeland. Matthew Polenzani’s voice was lovely as ever, but he suffered from song selection.  The evening was light on foreign-language performances, and his attempts at crossover staples were enjoyable but not Earth-shattering.

In addition to the vocal talent, celebrities also made appearances.  The Reverend Jesse Jackson, though awkward during his teleprompter introduction of a video on Mahalia Jackson, his final benediction of the evening was moving: “The water is deep, but you only drown when you stop kicking.  And we aren’t even gonna stop kicking.” Similarly, a duet version of “A Change is Gonna Come” by Empire stars Jussie Smollett and Terence Howard suffered from lack of coordination, but more than made up for that in power and emotion. The two ended the song with raised fists, a silent salute to protests past and current.

In all, the show was a tour-de-force of Chicago talent, and a delight to listen to. But it suffered from a lack of grit that represents true city life to most of the population.  The black performers were conspicuous in being the only ones to choose songs with a political theme. It was hard not to think, while surrounded by the Baroque decorations and red carpet of the Lyric Opera House, of the living and breathing street music you can’t avoid while walking around Chicago.  An impressive showcase, but somehow missing the actual heart of the city.

The concert will air on WTTW – Channel 11 on March 30, 2017.

I was seated next to Howard Reich, music critic for the Chicago Tribune.  His review is a nice description of the performance, but more glowing than I thought it deserved.