Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
Interview: Every time violinist Robert Chen, concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, steps in front of his colleagues as soloist, he knows one thing very well: A solid troupe has his back. Chen will be in that happy place April 20, 22 and 23 at Orchestra Hall when he plays Bartók’s early Violin Concerto No. 1 with guest conductor Neeme Järvi. The program will get an additional performance April 21 in Wheaton.
Preview: Musical reflections on Easter, transcendent and intimate and existential, form conductor Charles Dutoit’s multilayered theme for his concerts April 13-15 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The gentler parts are well known; for many listeners, however, the other part, a spiritual warp of upheaval and terror born of World War II, may come as revelation in startling terms.
Review: When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra released its program schedule for the current season, among the brightest highlights – one of those don’t-miss concerts – was Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” to be led by Bernard Haitink, who at age 88 is unsurpassed among Mahler conductors today. Then, just days before the performance weekend, March 30-April 1, Haitink canceled due to illness. But when James Conlon, former music director of the Ravinia Festival, answered the call, “Das Lied” found its full voice.
Review: Very curious, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recital March 29 at Orchestra Hall with her longtime collaborator, pianist Lambert Orkis. The programming was imaginative, the performances elegant, forceful, seamlessly integrated. What was so odd was Mutter’s choice not to play out to the house, but rather to offer at best a profile as she leaned into the piano and in at least one instance read from a score propped up next to Orkis’ own music.
Review: A ditzy girl, who turns out to be a veritable demon, brings a self-absorbed guy crashing down. He doesn’t see it coming, never has a prayer. Ah, you know that play? Right. It’s David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” of course. Well, it’s back with us again, more or less, in Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene” at Writers Theatre. When I say more or less, I mean there’s more involved – actors, situations, sex – but the sum amounts to less of consequence or, along the way, dramatic merit. ★★
Review: Daniil Trifonov’s prodigious recital March 26 at Orchestra Hall provided a ringing reminder of what a treasure the Symphony Center Presents annual piano series is. To have 10 such virtuosi parade across that stage over the course of a season is a gift not to be taken lightly. Still, that said, Trifonov’s heady program was exceptional even for the world-class keyboard lineup that populates the SCP series.
Review: I can only assume that tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s next operatic role will be Muhammad Ali. It took Brownlee all of five minutes as legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker to own that tragic character – to reveal a deeply flawed figure as one who was determined to be his own man, a brilliant, scarred fighter who proved to the world that he was the greatest. The Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” by Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette A. Wimberly, runs through March 26 at the Harris Theater. ★★★★
Preview: “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín,” a multimedia creation with orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists, narrators and film clips, will be presented under author-conductor Murry Sidlin on March 23 at Orchestra Hall. Sidlin developed the project to memorialize Jews who learned and performed Verdi’s Requiem in figurative protest against their Nazi oppressors at the Terezin concentration camp.
Review: Lest any insatiable lover of Bizet’s opera “Carmen” be put off by the idea of a “second cast,” as the Lyric Opera of Chicago has now changed the leads in its continuing production, let me put this as plainly as possible: The mid-run advent of mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role, with tenor Brandon Jovanovich now portraying the tragically smitten Don José, isn’t just hot stuff; it is scorched earth. ★★★★
Review: With music director Riccardo Muti back on the podium, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra delivered a bravura world premiere with Samuel Adams’ “many words of love,” framed by an elegant and emotionally charged performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with soloist Mitsuko Uchida and a vivacious account of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, which remarkably enough the CSO had not played since 2003.
Review: Mike Bartlett’s “Earthquakes in London,” at Steep Theatre, is an intriguing excursion that conflates garden variety family dysfunction with nothing less than the end of days. The show closes March 18, and it’s worth catching – not for its perfection (it is imperfect), but for its rigorous melding of intricate, credible characters and a provocative foray into magical realism. ★★★
Review: There was palpable energy at the Civic Opera House on March 9 when the Lyric Opera of Chicago presented “Celebrating Placido,” an evening of music and mirth with the remarkable Placido Domingo, who at age 76 still engenders that singular frisson felt upon hearing his first phrases as only the greatest vocalists are able to do.
Review: As the audience packed into Orchestra Hall whooped its enthusiasm for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s new Cello Concerto, just given its world premiere by soloist Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Salonen conducting, the two stars of the moment gleefully pointed fingers at each other as if to say, “You’re the man,” and, “Oh no, you’re the man.” They were both right.
Review: Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” an existential snapshot of lost souls at a signless crossroads, exemplifies theater as an ensemble endeavor. In Annie Baker’s modernized, razor-sharp adaptation of the play, complemented by a directorial tour de force from Robert Falls, Goodman Theatre brings the spirit of dramatic teamwork to vibrant life. ★★★★★
Review: Predictable highlights of any Chicago Symphony Orchestra season are the programs with perennial guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. When the brilliant Finnish maestro is on the podium, the fare is always special. Now Salonen is finishing up an extended weekend run of Stravinsky’s “Le sacre du printemps” on March 7, before moving right into the world premiere of the conductor-composer’s own Cello Concerto, with soloist Yo-Ya Ma, March 9-11.
Review: To sample through the red wines of Italian producer Avignonesi is to understand how such vino di tavola – or table wine – came to be known as Super Tuscan. It’s also to be reminded of the rewards and adaptability of Sangiovese, the bedrock grape of Tuscany. Or as Giuseppe Santarelli, Avignonesi’s export manager for North America, characterized Sangiovese in presiding at a Chicago tasting of his company’s wines: It is the King.
Review: For a play as benign as Young Jean Lee’s curiously titled “Straight White Men,” this glimpse into the man cave of three grown brothers and their father at Steppenwolf Theatre surely will engender the debate for which it ultimately begs. ★★
Review: Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new production of the Bard’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is a joyous voyage of discovery, a comedic delight that strips away the thicket of a problematic play and leaves us with the bare sober truth of human folly. Deftly edited and wittily directed by Marti Maraden, it brings together an acting ensemble so well integrated that the whole rollicking night feels like the work of a practiced improv troupe. ★★★★★
Review: Brian Parry’s heartbreaking performance as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at Redtwist Theatre is the finest work I’ve seen on a Chicago stage this season. A virtually tactile experience in a tiny, in-your-face venue, this is gigantic acting on the most intimate scale. Even better for theater buffs, the show’s run has been extended through March 26. ★★★★★
Review: There is much to recommend the new Lyric Opera production of Bizet’s “Carmen,” a joint venture with the Houston Grand Opera. Topping the list is mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova’s scorching performance in her role debut as the Gypsy femme fatale. But in the final act, where amid much splendor one anticipates a hair-raising pay-off, director-choreographer Rob Ashford loses his way. ★★★
Review: It was an itty-bitty iteration of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that took the stage Feb. 9 – a double handful of strings plus a harpsichord and the solo violin of conductor Fabio Biondi. Together with mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, this sufficient and most excellent force served up a splendid evening of fare from the High Baroque.
Review: Chicago Symphony audiences at Orchestra Hall may be late making the acquaintance of British conductor Bramwell Tovey, but the winter-spring portion of the current season has suddenly become a concentrated getting-to-know-you period. And if one might judge from his Feb. 3 CSO debut, the assured maestro offers a new friendship worth cultivating. Tovey, who is also a pianist and composer, will return in double duty as conductor and soloist with the CSO for a newly announced pair of all-Gershwin concerts March 24-25.
Review: In the unconscious, are sexual gratification and the urge to slaughter two sides of the same coin, expressions of the same feral impulse, the same profound (even infantile) need? It’s the question at the core of Jennifer Haley’s fascinating – and not a little disturbing – play “The Nether,” now doubtless holding audiences in rapt attention at A Red Orchid Theatre. ★★★
Review: In part, in an almost paradoxical way, Pearl Cleage’s play “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is about the idealistic, short-lived Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. But what makes Cleage’s drama – and Court Theatre’s current production brilliantly directed by Ron OJ Parson – so compelling lies in the story’s humanity, in the tragic flaws and the upward determination of characters making their way along the streets of daily life. ★★★★
Report: There’s no place like home, if even it’s your leader’s home away. In the welcoming embrace of Vienna’s acoustically splendid Musikverein concert hall, the touring musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made themselves very much at home, thank you. For music director Riccardo Muti, the musical hearth is wherever you feel the love, where you’re adored, where you’re The Man. That’s Vienna, where Muti has made guest appearances with the Vienna Philharmonic for 46 consecutive years. But it’s also – and make no mistake about this – Milan, where the CSO played two concerts at the legendary Teatro alla Scala opera house, Muti’s house for two decades.
Review: Even the cab drivers in Aalborg, Denmark, a city of 200,000 residents, are proud of the Musikkens Hus, an intimate and distinctively modernist 1,300-seat concert hall that opened two years ago. Concerts Jan. 16-17 by the touring Chicago Symphony Orchestra with music director Riccardo Muti bore out that civic pride.
Review: Some 600,000 of the curious, and proud, already have taken the long, long escalator ride from street level to the eighth-floor lobby of Hamburg’s brand-new Elbphilharmonie concert hall, where the Chicago Symphony in concerts Jan. 14-15 became the first foreign orchestra to perform on its stage. Both the curiosity and the pride were understandable.
Review: The Parisians made their assessment quickly about the matchup of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonie, the city’s splendorous two-year-old concert hall. That judgment, delivered by a packed house, was loudly affirmative after the first piece on the Jan. 13 program conducted by music director Riccardo Muti. And it only grew more raucous as the night went on.
Interview: Actors know the OMG moment well. You win the audition and get the part. Then comes hard reality: You actually have to do it. But for Tyla Abercrumbie, who gives one of those performances you can’t take your eyes from in Eugene Lee’s “East Texas Hot Links” at Writers Theatre, the daunting truth was not simply that she had to measure up to what she’d won. She had to figure out why her character was even in the play.
Review: It’s a play about hauntings, Conor McPherson’s “The Weir,” a dark and sharply drawn comedy of the unconscious now enjoying an infectious – and, happily, extended — run by the Irish Theatre of Chicago. Ghosts, the ones within us, fill the rural pub where “The Weir” unfolds: Five characters quite recognizably and sufficiently stand in for the lot of frail, erring, rueful humanity. ★★★★