For world flute aficionado Steve Kujala, the life of a freelance musician is where creativity can flourish.
“The thing about the occupation of freelance musician is you never know what’s going to be right around the corner,” he said. “You can plan all you want, you can have your one-year plan, your five-year plan, your 10-year plan, but you have to be ready to jog left and right at any given moment as opportunities present themselves. People like me enjoy the challenge and the variety of all the different avenues that we pursue.”
The North Shore native, now based just outside of L.A., returns to the Chicago area for two upcoming movie-in-concert performances with the Chicago Philharmonic — “Black Panther In Concert” at the Chicago Theatre Saturday, June 18, and “The Lion King in Concert” at Ravinia Festival Wednesday, June 29.
Kujala, who was born in Evanston before moving to Skokie and eventually Winnetka to attend New Trier West (the school was split into two campuses at the time), said that the musical seeds were planted in him and his siblings at a young age. His mother was a Suzuki violinist and teacher around the area, and his father was the principal piccolo player at the Chicago Symphony for 48 years and a professor of flute at Northwestern University for 50.
“I was hearing him practice flute probably when I was in the womb, but certainly from the day I was born,” he said. “I was originally planning to have a symphonic career like my father, but I was infected with the jazz and rock bug. That sent me in all sorts of different directions and then eventually World Music and ethnic music. It all kind of created a nice musical stew.”
After stopping just short of finishing his degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, Kujala headed to L.A. with his jazz-rock fusion group Auracle to pursue a recording contract. From there, his career as a freelance musician took off, ushering him along through a diverse mix of studio work and playing in various orchestras, on tours and with Broadway shows.
“I just love the variety,” he said, relishing the creative freedom. Once, in the mid-’80s, he subbed for his father during a 10-day series with the Chicago Symphony, a stint that showed him musical flexibility was a necessity for his musical growth. “After that I was cured of any aspirations that I may have had to be a full-time symphonic player. It was too much of a musical straitjacket for me, required too much dedication and too much concentration in one specific area. That would have been the death knell for me creatively. So I decided to forge ahead with what I was already doing in Los Angeles.”
Along with a full slate of performances, Kujala has also released over 300 published works of original music, created a series of YouTube performance and educational videos and is currently writing a musical based on the opera “The Magic Flute.”
This weekend and again in late June, Kujala puts his musical abilities on full display as a featured soloist with the Chicago Philharmonic’s concerts. The performances feature screenings of the popular Marvel and Disney movies with the soundtrack replaced by a live orchestra. For these, Kujala is revisiting shows he’s played with in the past; last summer he performed “Black Panther in Concert” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, and two decades ago he played in the West Coast production of the Broadway stage musical “The Lion King” for two years after learning 14 different world flutes under David Weiss, the artist who originated the seat on Broadway. (At Ravinia, he’ll perform along with the live-action movie released in 2019.)
“A lot of the impetus was to try to get audience members to discover symphonic music vis-à-vis those multimedia events, using the lure of the movie that they’re already very familiar with,” he said. “They come to the concert, and ‘Wow, there’s an orchestra down there playing! Maybe we should check out one of their concerts.’ So the object being to add a little bit to their understanding of what a live orchestra is capable of.”
And while he’s here to help bring fans to the world of Wakanda, Kujala is also happy for the chance to come back home and visit with family still in the area.
“Coming back to Chicago is always a treat for me,” he said. “And if I get to come back and actually perform somewhere, that’s an even better treat.”
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“Black Panther in Concert”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18; doors open at 6:30 p.m. for a red carpet walk, photos and costume and best-dressed contests
Where: The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., Chicago, chicagophilharmonic.org
“The Lion King in Concert”
When: 7 p.m. (gates open at 5 p.m.) Wednesday, June 29
Where: Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park, ravinia.org
Tickets: $30-$45 for lawn; $30-$75 for reserved pavilion seats