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CSO finale’s convergence of three young stars signaled new energy heading into Mäkelä era

Jul 1, 2024 – 7:28 pm

Commentary: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2023-24 season, just ended at Orchestra Hall, has been the most electrifying in recent memory. The 123-year-old ensemble, founded in 1891, opened its season with a fabulous triumph of octogenarians. And yet the vibe has been distinctly young: The orchestra capped its season on June 24 with the local premiere of a new piano concerto by another highly popular composer, Mason Bates, also known as DJ Masonic. Bates was appointed by Muti as CSO composer in residence back in 2010.

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Haymarket Opera closes out its spring season with early Handel oratorio ‘La Resurrezione’

Jun 21, 2024 – 6:31 pm

Evocative projections adorned Haymarket’s production of Handel’s oratorio “La Resurrezione.” (Elliot Mandel photos)

Review: Haymarket Opera Company production of Handel’s oratorio “La Resurrezione” on June 14 at DePaul University.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

In September, the ever-enterprising and always intriguing Haymarket Opera Company will return to its home base, Jarvis Opera Hall at DePaul University, to do what it does with unsurpassed style and relentless devotion: Baroque opera. On tap is Handel’s “Tamerlano,” an exotic medieval tale first produced in London exactly 300 years ago but apparently never before seen in Chicago.

Rarities, albeit not exactly operatic, have filled Haymarket’s spring season — in March the first performance in 300 years of Maria Margherita Grimani’s 1715 melodrama “The Beheading of John the Baptist” (or “La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista”) and on June 14 an oratorio from Handel’s youthful Italian sojourn, “La Resurrezione.” The latter brought two unusual moves by Haymarket, the importation of someone other than founding artist director Craig Trompeter to conduct and a visiting star turn by Chicago violin virtuoso Rachel Barton Pine as concertmaster and spotlighted soloist. Read the full story »

In concerto ‘The Elements,’ CSO and violinist mined the potential of composer partnerships

Jun 19, 2024 – 12:08 pm
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Review: Premieres in the classical music world are too often one and done – works that don’t gain enough traction to compensate for the tremendous amount of time and energy that goes into their incubation and mastery. But violinist Joshua Bell’s ambitious five-composer, five-movement violin concerto with epilogue, “The Elements,” which received its Midwest premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on June 13,involved such a smart, systematic and widely collaborative approach that it would well serve as the blueprint for similar endeavors.

A valedictory for percussion caps CSO tenure of composer in residence Jessie Montgomery

Jun 4, 2024 – 8:57 am
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Review: A notably productive chapter in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence program came to a splendid, and certainly resonant, close last weekend with the world premiere of Jessie Montgomery’s “Procession” for percussion and orchestra. It was nothing short of a bang-up success.

Neeme Järvi, elder statesman on the podium, leads CSO in Mahler 2nd of intimate grandeur

May 28, 2024 – 10:49 pm
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Review: It’s surely unusual to begin a concert review with a statement of full disclosure. But I feel duty-bound to note that I go back a long way with the Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, who led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a transcendent performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony at Orchestra Hall on the memorable evening of May 23. I found this latest encounter singularly touching and as thrilling as that packed house obviously did.

Pianist Kissin, cheering throng of enthusiasts renew an annual celebration at Orchestra Hall

May 22, 2024 – 9:15 am
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Review: Pianist Evgeny Kissin’s annual recitals in Chicago are unlike any other musical performance in the year at Orchestra Hall. When Kissin shows up, well, so does everybody else. These are not concerts, but Events. Witness the 52-year-old pianist’s latest appearance on May 19: Not only was the hall jam-packed, including the choral terrace, but three rows of tiered onstage seating immediately behind the piano also were filled end to end. Kissin is manifestly Chicago’s favorite visiting virtuoso, and for good reason. He may well be the greatest pianist in the world, and he never disappoints.

Meeting of minds in music of finesse: German pianist, Japanese maestro convene with CSO

May 21, 2024 – 5:43 am
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Review: In a performance of rare beauty that set the mind racing in several directions, German pianist Martin Helmchen, Japanese conductor Kazuki Yamada and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra brought patches of human history to life at Orchestra Hall over the weekend of May 16. Too often in concert halls, big sound is understood as the measure of importance, but right away at this CSO event one felt irresistibly drawn by the whispers and the need to lean in.

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

May 15, 2024 – 7:52 pm
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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.

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

May 7, 2024 – 8:09 am
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Review: On Thursday and Saturday nights, May 2 and 4, the fare was exotic classicism, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” spotlighting both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra 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.

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.

Andrew Davis, conductor and scholar, led
opera and life with an imperishable twinkle

Apr 25, 2024 – 10:33 am
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Remembrance: The last time I interviewed conductor Andrew Davis, in 2021, he was as I shall always think of him: soft-spoken, thoughtful, articulate, self-effacing, an undemonstrative intellectual with a wry spirit and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that lit up his whole being. Of the many testimonials and tributes I’ve read about Davis since his death from leukemia on April 20 at age 80, the one I think he would have liked best was the succinct observation of Jeff Alexander, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, that the British-born conductor possessed “good wit.”

CSO and Chorus offer Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’: Polished sound, but scant fury, signifying little

Apr 16, 2024 – 4:11 pm
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Review: Under the baton of James Conlon, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus presented “Elijah” in performances April 11-13, of which I heard the last. Like the oratorio on its surface, which is to say in its entirety, what I heard was altogether above reproach. The only question was why it was undertaken at all.

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.

Baroque bounty: Haymarket revives oratorio, Bella Voce turns spotlight on its band Sinfonia

Mar 29, 2024 – 11:35 am
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Commentary: If you know where to look, and you don’t have to look far, you’ll find Baroque music so well served in Chicago that our musical locus can sometimes feel like Venice, Leipzig or London in the early 1700s. On recent consecutive nights, the ever-enchanting Haymarket Opera offered what was apparently the first performance in 300 years of Maria Margherita Grimani’s 1715 melodrama “The Beheading of John the Baptist” (or “La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista”), and the splendid vocal ensemble Bella Voce showcased its instrumental component Sinfonia in its first stand-alone concert. The adjacent events, March 22-23, conjured an aura of subtle riches.

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.

In a who-knew debut, Czech conductor leads electric Beethoven with Chicago Symphony

Mar 3, 2024 – 8:44 pm
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Review: Conductors making a debut with the Chicago Symphony are usually preceded by reputation. Which makes an exception of the Czech visitor Petr Popelka, who despite his recent rapid ascent in Europe is a virtual unknown in the U.S. That should change quickly. Popelka’s appearance with the CSO on March 1-2 was a stunning discovery. After hearing his brilliant turn through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony – twice – I can only assume the CSO will bring this well-schooled and artistically assured conductor back to Orchestra Hall asap.

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.

When Yo-Yo Ma joins CSO for a concert, crowd goes wild; and then the scene gets really mad

May 3, 2023 – 2:49 pm
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Review: All that was lacking was the Guinness and step-dancers to turn the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s special concert with cellist Yo-Ya Ma into what the Irish call a hooley. it was a party, for sure, the May 1 event benefiting the musicians’ pension fund, and dancing in the aisles threatened to break out at any moment. There was a lot of whooping, and it began the moment the lionized cellist strode onto the stage at the concert’s outset to play the Elgar concerto. But that ovation paled in comparison with the near delirium that erupted in the packed house at the conclusion of Ma’s elegant performance led by Carlos Miguel Prieto.

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.