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When Chicago Symphony went small, intimate with Mozart and Stravinsky, impact went deep

May 15, 2024 – 7:52 pm

Commentary: In its small-scale fashion, last weekend’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program with conductor-violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider was the sleeper delight of the season thus far. To say it was a half-orchestra affair might be generous. Compared with the forces arrayed on stage at Orchestra Hall for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” the week before, the diminutive band assembled around Szeps-Znaider barely filled the dimensions of a chamber orchestra. But what a sound that handful of musicians made, and what a display of style, polish and wit.

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In fan-tastic fantasy weekend, CSO serves up ‘Scheherazade,’ sci-fi film ‘Close Encounters’

May 7, 2024 – 8:09 am

Elim Chan conducted “Scheherazade” in her CSO debut. (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Review: Chicago Symphony conducted by Elim Chan; also “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” CSO conducted by Richard Kaufman.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

It was magical. But you had to be at both programs to fully grasp the scope of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s weekend of fantastical concerts and the hearts-all-in response of audiences that showered their appreciation — and I daresay affection — on the celebrated local band.

On Thursday and Saturday nights, May 2 and 4, the fare was exotic classicism, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” spotlighting both the CSO debut of conductor Elim Chan and the bewitching solos of associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong. On Friday night and Sunday afternoon, all eyes were on the big screen suspended over the orchestra for a showing of director Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi charmer “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” with the CSO providing John Williams’ indispensable musical score live. Read the full story »

Bavarian orchestra’s dark, edged Mahler Sixth bespeaks ascendant composer of modern era

May 1, 2024 – 9:30 am
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Review: The Sixth Symphony calls for an expanded orchestra with double woodwinds, eight French horns, two harps and a percussion group that famously includes a giant sledgehammer. Like conductor Simon Rattle, who led without a score, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s performance April 28 at Orchestra Hall displayed a collective mastery of this complex music to its core – its heavy tread and its lightness of being, its massive sonorities and its consummate finesse.

Klaus Mäkelä is named CSO music director; Finnish conductor to succeed Muti in 2027

Apr 2, 2024 – 9:17 am
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Report: Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, 28, whose meteoric rise on the international concert scene has electrified audiences and elicited rapturous critical praise, was named April 2 as the 11th music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The appointment will put Mäkelä in charge of two of the world’s preeminent orchestras, starting simultaneously in September 2027 when his Chicago directorship will be twinned with his new post as principal conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

As Lyric Opera emerges from challenging era, Anthony Freud winds up 13-year run at helm

Mar 22, 2024 – 1:55 pm
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Interview: With Anthony Freud’s announcement that he will depart the Lyric Opera of Chicago as its general director in July of this year, a significant transition in one of the Windy City’s leading arts institutions is upon us. “I feel great about the company, the strength of the institution from which I’m retiring,” said Freud at a recent sit-down interview in his office on the fourth floor of the Lyric Opera House. “I’m proud of the way we have evolved through challenging times. I think the work that we do is exciting, thought-provoking, innovative, and surprising in many ways.”

With word waiting on next CSO music director, Jakub Hrůša leads a spectacular ‘Zarathustra’

Mar 17, 2024 – 5:45 pm
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Review: Even in a Chicago Symphony season that has produced an array of memorable concerts, the March 14 program with conductor Jakub Hrůša is likely to stand out for a long time to come. The virtuosic pairing of Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra’ with Bartók’s suite from “The Miraculous Mandarin” was at once a reminder of the CSO’s comprehensive brilliance and a testament to Hrůša’s extraordinary prowess.

‘Matchbox Magic Flute’ at Goodman Theatre: Mozart’s opera spun afresh in a whimsical key

Mar 12, 2024 – 8:34 pm
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Review: Director Mary Zimmerman’s take on Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” at Goodman Theatre falls somewhere between the work’s original conception as a singspiel, literally a sung play, and a sort of heedless “Hey, guys, let’s put on a musical.” Only here and there does it get its chin above the opera bar, and yet it is altogether delightful, a rambunctious good time. And it has one of the best dragons ever. ★★★★

Diverse styles on display in MusicNOW series reflect rich, complex cultural stew of Chicago

Mar 11, 2024 – 11:33 pm
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Commentary: At yet another of its fascinating new-music concerts this season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW event on March 3 ‒ conceived by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery ‒ put me in mind, improbably enough, of Mozart, whose music overflowed with the influences of all he experienced in his travels through the cosmopolitan centers of Europe. Chicago is, absolutely, such an invigorating place to be.

Chicago Symphony gets $21M Negaunee gift for education, wide range of other programs

Mar 8, 2024 – 12:13 pm
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Review: The Chicago-based Negaunee Foundation, a longtime donor of major grants to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its diverse educational program, has made a new $21 million gift to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. It is one of the largest single donations the CSO has ever received.

Chicago Symphony’s 2024-25 season reveals zesty ingredients of Muti, Mahler and Mäkelä

Mar 1, 2024 – 12:01 pm
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Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s newly announced plans for its 2024-25 season tout a bundle of enticing concerts, not least a “heroic” all-Beethoven program led by CSO music director emeritus for life Riccardo Muti and his season-ending return with a high-powered rarity, Berlioz’ “The Damnation of Faust,” a spectacle for orchestra, chorus and soloists. The meteoric young Finnish maestro Klaus Mäkelä (above) returns to Orchestra Hall for two programs late in the season.

With new CSO music director yet to be named, guest conductors make impressive showings

Feb 27, 2024 – 1:03 pm
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Commentary: Like the doubtless confused plant life in this bizarrely warm season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra seems to be surging toward spring with stunning vitality amid an aura of great expectation. We’re now plunging toward an untimed announcement of a new music director. The last couple of weeks have spotlighted two very fine conductors, Paavo Jarvi (above) and Hannu Lintu, and the spring stretch of the season promises several more.

Lyric’s stark, fierce ‘Jenůfa’ again showed how aggressive company has upped theater game

Dec 8, 2023 – 10:39 am
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Commentary: This is Chicago, a city famous for spoken-theater companies that push drama to the ragged edge, finding new ways into the classics of Sophocles, Chekhov, Ibsen, O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Albee, and Shakespeare. As it proved again with its stunning November production of Janáček’s “Jenůfa,” the lightning-bolt of the fall season, Lyric Opera of Chicago in recent years has become likewise aggressive at offering novel approaches to opera’s greatest hits. I say bring it.

Amsterdam invites CSO to mega Mahler fest; van Zweden will lead 6th and 7th Symphonies

Oct 17, 2023 – 5:04 pm
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Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which under Georg Solti built a formidable reputation in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler that continues undiminished to the present day, has been invited to an ambitious international Mahler festival in May 2025 to be hosted by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Five orchestras from three continents will contribute to a complete cycle of Mahler’s nine completed symphonies, plus “Das Lied von der Erde” and the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth.

‘Triumph of the Octagon’ is a multifaceted win for Riccardo Muti and CSO in Glass premiere

Oct 2, 2023 – 2:41 pm
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Review: “The Triumph of the Octagon,” a Sept. 28 world premiere commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association for Riccardo Muti, honors the esteemed conductor’s transition from music director (a title he held from 2010 until June 2023) to his new role as music director emeritus for life. The tone poem by Philip Glass, with its quiet undulations, beautifully commemorates the CSO’s season of transition: the orchestra’s capacity for singularly tranquil, unhurried and quite magical effects will linger as earmarks of Muti’s legacy.

‘Flying Dutchman’ at Lyric Opera: A dark tale made brilliant by the voices of a doomed pair

Sep 29, 2023 – 3:17 pm
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Review: The sorry plight of Wagner’s Senta, the lass who obsesses about the accursed sea captain in “The Flying Dutchman,” always puts me in mind of Schubert’s plaintive Gretchen at the spinning wheel, bereft of peace and heavy of heart. “Dutchman” is one dark opera, populated by distraught or deeply neurotic characters for whom there is no relief and never will be. Still, there is a certain radiance to the bleakness and it suffuses a compelling account of Wagner’s music-drama at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Muti is CSO Music Director Emeritus for Life; honor caps grand Beethoven Missa Solemnis

Jun 25, 2023 – 8:33 pm
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Review: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its music director for the last 13 seasons have come to a conclusion and a consummation of that long and distinguished relationship, but not an ending. After a sublime account of Beethoven’s monumental Missa Solemnis with the CSO and Chorus at Orchestra Hall on June 23, Riccardo Muti was invested as Music Director Emeritus for Life in a presentation by Jeff Alexander, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association and Mary Louise Gorno, chair of the board of directors.

With CSO’s grand Beethoven finish still ahead, Muti stamped directorship with great Schubert

Jun 20, 2023 – 4:07 pm
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Commentrary: It has been like a double bill, or a fascinating theater piece with a twin ending, Riccardo Muti’s transition from his music directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In any other season, the CSO concerts June 15-17 would have made a terrific finale – a delightful tuba concerto spotlighting CSO principal Gene Pokorny, with plenty of schtick thrown in, and a great performance, indeed, of Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony. But this is not just any season, and its actual consummation with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (June 23-25) befits the conclusion of Muti’s 13 years at the orchestra’s helm.

With a transcendent Mahler Ninth Symphony, Czech rises in CSO directorship sweepstakes

Jun 12, 2023 – 11:56 am
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Commentary: If the lineup of Chicago Symphony guest conductors for next season looks like an audition roster for a prospective successor to Riccardo Muti as music director, one name stands out if only because it occurs twice: Jakub Hrůša, who will lead consecutive programs in March 2024. Based on the nuanced and illuminating Mahler Ninth Symphony he conducted with the CSO this past weekend, one might even see the 41-year-old Hrůša as frontrunner.

As Muti era spins toward close, he spotlights musicians who helped create an epic splendor

May 28, 2023 – 9:29 pm
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Commentary: Two consecutive weeks of concerts at Orchestra Hall, marking Riccardo Muti’s penultimate stint as music director before what figures to be quite a grand finale in June, amounted to something of an extended house party – just the man and his band in showcase concerts that spoke volumes about the mettle of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and  the 13 seasons of their creative togetherness.

Russian conductor takes up Shostakovich 8th, leading CSO deep into a complex spiritual web

May 1, 2023 – 3:28 pm
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Review: Dmitri Shostakovich’s epic and tumultuous Symphony No. 8 in C minor, composed in 1943, might be viewed as Volume 2 of his tomes of war, coming straight after the likewise sweeping and similarly fraught Symphony No. 7 in C major written the year before. One of Shostakovich’s most compelling works, elegantly wrought and spiritually complex, the Eighth Symphony received a sublime and penetrating performance April 27 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

French conductor Fabien Gabel, in CSO debut, makes subtly dazzling splash with Stravinsky

Apr 21, 2023 – 8:22 pm
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Review: If many in the audience at Orchestra Hall were unaware of French conductor Fabien Gabel when he made his debut April 20 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, they surely will remember him upon his presumably early return. The 47-year-old maestro’s fundamental musical elegance suggested that of CSO music director Riccardo Muti. On this first visit, Gabel’s leadership was fluent and efficient, the musical result eloquent, nuanced, brilliant.

As arts groups aim at winning audience back, CSO hits the target in back-to-back programs

Mar 27, 2023 – 7:25 pm
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Commentary: The emergent paradigm of inclusion, this new arts-wide acknowledgement of stage and concert hall as Everyperson’s forum and welcoming agora for all who wish to assemble there, was on manifest display in recent Chicago Symphony performances at Orchestra Hall. The repertoire showcased its fresh profile in brave new works or just unusual music by a broad range of composers, served up by a wide spectrum of artists. It was a mix highlighted by the CSO subscription debut March 23-26 of an elegant veteran, the African American conductor Thomas Wilkins.

‘Carmen’ at Lyric Opera: Love and death in old Seville, ups and downs in a muddled retelling

Mar 19, 2023 – 11:02 pm
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Review: Two warring concepts shape and drive Bizet’s opera “Carmen” – love and death. Or in French, l’amour and la mort, the one word formed as if entirely by the lips, the other resonating from somewhere deep in the back of the throat. Love, in the earthy and precarious world of the gypsy Carmen, is transitory, a placeholder, an article as disposable as life itself. But death, this thing that wells up from so deep a place in speech, is profound and inevitable, the single eternal verity. Both musically and dramatically, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s busy and vibrant “Carmen” wants the depth and darkness that mark this work as the prototype of verismo opera. ★★

As meteoric young conductor returns to CSO, young listeners roar promise at Orchestra Hall

Feb 20, 2023 – 1:16 pm
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Review: The roof-raising roar spoke volumes about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert with the swiftly ascending young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä on Feb. 16. In no small part, the stormy ovation that followed Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was just one more shockwave engendered by this phenomenal 27-year-old conductor wherever he goes. But the joyful noise was about other things, too.

Chicago Symphony to open Carnegie season
as Riccardo Muti era closes with long goodbye

Feb 19, 2023 – 6:51 pm
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Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will take the spotlight for the opening of Carnegie Hall’s 2023–24 season, with Riccardo Muti leading  “a celebratory gala concert” on Oct. 4, the venerable New York institution announced. Muti, who steps down in June after 13 years as CSO music director, will also lead a second program the next night at Carnegie. The Carnegie opener features Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The second concert offers an Italian-themed program.

In dazzling debuts with Chicago Symphony, conductor and pianist renew Russian masters

Feb 13, 2023 – 8:36 pm
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Review: Before an exuberant and youthful crowd at Orchestra Hall, the 34-year-old Israeli guest conductor Lahav Shani and the 30-year-old Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, enormous talents, made eclectic – and electric – Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts.

Barber of Chicago: ‘The Factotum’ reimagines Mozart and Rossini in Black community opera

Feb 6, 2023 – 2:26 pm
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Review: There’s never a time when producers and directors of new shows fail to think, in the final days before opening, “We could really use another month.” But there’s also no denying the tantalizing potential of a new hit on brew at the Harris Theater, where the Lyric Opera of Chicago has unveiled a first look at “The Factotum.” ★★★★

Two masterly maestros meet some crazy kids: ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ ‘Albert Herring’ on stage

Feb 4, 2023 – 11:33 am
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Review: What might a couple of poor kids lost in the woods and a shy, sheltered lad in the city have in common? The answer, played out in a romp through Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at Lyric Opera of Chicago and a gentle, delightful go at Britten’s “Albert Herring” at Chicago Opera Theatre, is – spunk!

Lyric Opera’s bright and funny ‘Le Comte Ory’ confirmed the company’s return to full vigor

Nov 28, 2022 – 3:36 pm
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Commentary: No Chicago arts presenter deserves the success of its current season more than Lyric Opera, which in March of 2020 was forced, by the onset of Covid, to cancel its “Ring” cycle, a gargantuan undertaking involving Richard Wagner’s four-chapter mythical saga. The company capped its autumn offering with a dazzling go at Rossini’s comedy, in Bartlett Sher’s Metropolitan Opera production, designed by Michael Yeargan and revived here by Kathleen Smith Belcher.

Verdi’s ‘Don Carlos’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago: Epic French version is potent despite stark set

Nov 14, 2022 – 3:01 pm
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Review: The fascinating problem with the Lyric Opera production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” – beautifully conducted by music director Enrique Mazzola, especially in the mystical, delicate parts – is that there is almost too much of it. A Thanksgiving feast comes to mind, that overwhelmed sense that can develop before the third helpings are passed and desserts loom. The fifth and final act ends, as it must, in defeat and death, with Verdi’s music at its most painfully exquisite.★★★★

Post-pandemic, CSO playing at familiar peak, but audiences have thinned at Orchestra Hall

Nov 11, 2022 – 12:29 pm
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Commentary: October ended and November began with a sizable qualitative swing in concerts by the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall. What was constant, and troubling, was the sea of empty red seats. Even going back to the beginning of October, when music director Riccardo Muti was on the podium, the house looked light – something that would have been unimaginable pre-pandemic.

Chicago Shakespeare: Solving the ‘problem,’ but creating others, in ‘Measure for Measure’

Nov 5, 2022 – 9:45 am
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Review: CST’s aggressively distilled “Measure for Measure” is a light version that brings to mind the Metropolitan Opera’s condensed, English-language version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” readily consumable by the whole family. (Not here, though.) In the case of “Measure for Measure,” there’s an argument for boiling it down to essential lines and action. This treatment directed by Henry Godinez skips along at a good clip, extracting lively theater from a rather ponderous “lesson” text. ★★★