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Review: James Gaffigan, winner 15 years ago of the Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition at age 25, is checking off debuts with the world’s major orchestras and opera companies with work that is typically vibrant and rhythmically vigorous. As the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first guest conductor this season, Gaffigan displayed his musical authority in two substantial and challenging works – Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 and the U.S. premiere of Avner Dorman’s “Eternal Rhythm,” a percussion concerto with CSO principal Cynthia Yeh as soloist.
Interview: If there is anyone in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra whose onstage attire should include a pair of sneakers, it is principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh, who will be at the center of attention for three concerts Oct. 3-5 as the soloist in the widely anticipated U.S. premiere of Avner Dorman’s free-wheeling concerto “Eternal Rhythm.”
Review: In love and determined to get her way, an awesome spitfire turns to Figaro, the barber, for assistance in Rossini’s gleefully funny opera buffa, “The Barber of Seville.” It’s now playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in a Broadway style production, with sun-drenched Moorish touches, roving set pieces on wheels, and a motley crew of singing comedians. ★★★★
Interview: Fresh from Italy’s Ravenna Festival, where he conducts and teaches every summer, Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is plunging into a season-long cycle through Beethoven’s symphonies in anticipation of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 1770. “It will be a document of my admiration and love for the Chicago Symphony,” Muti says. The venture begins with the First and Third Symphonies in concerts Sept. 26-28 at Orchestra Hall.
Review: Riccardo Muti launched the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new season with a fresh revival of Shostakovich’s dark Stalin-era Sixth Symphony, which seemed relevant and contemporary under his command. Then Grieg’s Piano Concerto sparkled anew with Leif Ove Andsnes’ light keyboard touch.
Review: The soprano in the title role of Verdi’s “Aida” struggled with illness, only to be replaced in the second of three performances by a young singer who jumped in without rehearsal. And still the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus led by Riccardo Muti scored a general triumph in their season finale – thanks in no small part to mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili’s brilliant singing as Amneris.
Review: Eugène Ionesco’s “Killing Game” won’t solve life’s Big Riddle – why we’re here at all – for you. But this imaginative production directed by Dado will provide you with acidly brilliant company at A Red Orchid Theatre, where 13 skilled actors play many, many roles – because otherwise their parts would have been exceedingly brief. The citizens are dropping dead in dizzying succession, and in often ridiculous fashion, of an unknown cause. ★★★★
Review: When Jake Heggies’ opera “Moby-Dick” had its world premiere in Dallas in 2010, everything about it was gargantuan and cutting edge technically, with enormous set pieces, elements flying in and out, lighting sufficient to evoke boat-swallowing storms at sea, and whale-size computer graphics. But a new and nifty mid-size design concept, seen at Chicago Opera Theater at the Harris atop Millennium Park, was just as thrilling, even more intense, as it zoomed in on the swirling human action and lurking danger in the vast surround. ★★★★
Report: The striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra voted April 27 to approve a new five-year contract that compromises on pensions and projects wage increases totaling 13.25 percent. The agreement was reached April 26, the day Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped into a contentious dispute between the musicians and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association that had led to the strike March 11. Under the new agreement, the pension plan will be frozen after the 2022-23 season and transition thereafter to a model that shifts the future investment burden to the musicians themselves. Unanimous approval by the musicians came hours before the Association board of trustees also voted to approve the contract.
Commentary: The strike by musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, now entering its second month, has brought into focus some realities about high-level orchestras in our time, the nature of work stoppages such as this one and the framework of negotiations between musicians and management. Perhaps the first point to be made is the inappropriateness of outsiders to presume to judge how an impasse in negotiations should be resolved.
April 3 Update: The musicians of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra had expected to play Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony on March 26 at Orchestra Hall. Instead, with the Chicago Symphony on strike, the visiting musicians took to the streets — one could almost say the barricades — in solidarity with their Chicago colleagues. Brass players from the two orchestras played briefly on the sidewalk in front of Orchestra Hall amid signs proclaiming their unity.
Commentary: The pool of grand opera subscribers may be slowly shrinking nationally, but one can’t help feeling optimistic about Lyric Opera of Chicago’s long-term prospects as the company continues to refine and redefine itself. The Opera’s nimble branch – Lyric Unlimited – attracted two crowds of 1,100 each to the Harris Theater on March 15 and 17 for its latest chamber opera presentation, “An American Dream.” A loudly enthusiastic audience was the latest evidence of the hard work that Lyric has put into its own expanded vision.
Updated March 20: The striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will give two free performances they have dubbed “From the Heart of the Orchestra – Free Concerts for Chicago.” The two programs, announced as the first events in a projected series of free presentations, will feature a small ensemble playing chamber music March 22 and the full orchestra in works by Beethoven and Mozart on March 25. The musicians also made public letters of support from former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim and Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Review: The Ninth Symphony of American composer William Schuman, which Chicago Symphony music director Riccardo Muti conducted for the first time, commemorates a painful moment in modern Italian history – the systematic murder of 335 Italian civilians, with one shot each to the back of the head, by German soldiers in the last weeks of World War II.
Review: One of the world’s preeminent orchestras, the Amsterdam-based Concertgebouw is accustomed to touring, tallying 40 concerts away from home each year. But the brief U.S. tour included Chicago among only four cities treated to its renowned specialities. Richard Strauss’ highly personal 1897 fantasy for enormous orchestral forces “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) exploded with sound reverberating from the depths, gloried in woodwind sparkle and boasted the awesome grandeur of the Concertgebouw’s brass and battery.
Report: A monumental tribute to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth highlights the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2019-20 season, its 10th under the stewardship of music director Riccardo Muti. In a season-long Beethoven immersion, Muti will conduct all nine symphonies and six different pianists will make their way collectively through the 32 sonatas. Muti will also preside over four world and U.S. premieres.
Preview: The consummation of a four-year project to produce Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and the beginning of a “five- or six-year” exploration of early Verdi highlight plans for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2019-20 season, which also marks the 20th anniversary of Andrew Davis’ tenure as music director. After annual creations of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre” and “Siegfried,” the Lyric will cap the “Ring” cycle with “Götterdämmerung” in April 2020, then pull the whole enterprise together with three turns through the complete tetralogy.
Review: When people talk about high-energy spectacle and romantic intensity in Italian opera, “Il Trovatore” is the classic Exhibit A. An instant hit when it opened in Rome, it’s still a winner. Lyric’s three-way production with the San Francisco Opera and the Met is a concept that remains dynamic and fresh, from the flash and wham of gypsy smithies hammering away at their swords in the extravagant Anvil Chorus, to the tragic love triangle that complicates a civil war unfolding. ★★★★
Review: It’s not often that you can pull a forgotten gem out of the trunk, showcase it in a tasteful setting, and reveal it for the magnificently neglected thing that it is. Chicago Opera Theater has succeeded in doing us that favor with Tchaikovsky’s dreamy, naturalistic 1892 opera “Iolanta” – the composer’s last – performed by able forces at the Studebaker, a lovingly refurbished 740-seat jewel-box on Michigan Avenue that also dates from that same last decade of the 19th century. ★★★
Review: In the aftermath of a California gunman’s rampage, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus delivered heart-stirring performance, resplendent with awe and penitence, delicately threaded with human doubt, and led by the world’s finest living interpreter of this work.
Review: The first sign of the enemy in “Siegfried” was a shiny-red three-toed claw, beckoning from under Lyric Opera curtain, as if to say, “I’m Fafner the Dragon, and I’m ready to rumble.” The crowd rippled with mirth and stayed on top of the details in Wagner’s lively saga about the great god Wotan, played by bass-baritone Eric Owens, and the brash young Siegfried, whose help is needed if Wotan’s plan to save the gods has half a chance. ★★★
Report: After the brief, harrowing intermission of a strike by its orchestra, the Lyric Opera of Chicago is back in business. Members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians ratified a new contract Oct. 14, ending a five-day walkout and clearing the way for the Lyric to declare Oct. 18 as the deferred opening night of Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” The Lyric Opera House actually re-opens its doors Oct. 17 with a performance of Puccini’s “La bohème,” which launched the current season.
Update: Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Federation of Musicians Local #10-208 (CFM) have reached a multi-year labor agreement extending through the 2020/21 season. On Oct. 14, the Chicago Federation of Musicians voted to ratify the tentative agreement reached one day earlier. No further details or comments were available. The musicians went on strike Oct. 9 in response to cuts in compensation and work weeks sought by management.
Review: If there was a moment during the season-ending concert that summed up the singular achievement of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the long-term influence of Riccardo Muti, it came near the end of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater,” a Catholic hymn to Mary that pulls the listeners into the mother’s grief at the foot of the cross and offers transcendence. The three-line prayer “Quando corpus morietur” (“When my body dies, let me live in Paradise, too”) is so very human and humble that the listener might not notice how treacherous it is to sing. The Chicago Symphony Chorus imbued it with a powerful emotion that filled the hall, yet with sound so soft it barely hung on a thread.
Review: A Grant Park Music Festival concert celebrating singers and song featured the world premiere setting of Native American songs and stories about a star cluster called “The Pleiades,” which is visible to the naked eye in colder months. Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds wrote it to be performed during the Chorus America Conference, which brought hundreds of the nation’s choruses large and small to Chicago. It played nicely in the out-of-doors in preamble to starlight and fireworks on the night before the summer solstice.
Review: Sam Shepard’s darkly funny tale is not so much about the decline of an American way of life as it is about us humans losing sight of ourselves in a blur of treachery, self-denial and retribution that threatens to extend through the generations backward and forward. As directed by Kimberly Senior in a superb production, Shepard’s realm is a ramshackle pasture of the heart, where truths too painful to confess refuse to stay buried no matter how much mind-numbing alcohol, or sexual abandon or vagabondage are applied. ★★★★
Review: The MusicNOW endeavor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in the middle of a roaring spring expansion under the cultivating flair of composers-in-residence Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek. The latest MusicNOW shoot was an experiment within three different spaces at the rambling Art Institute of Chicago, including Chagall’s America Windows room. And that was preamble to the MusicNOW grand finale, featuring two world premieres, on May 21 at Orchestra Hall.
Review: It has been coming on for a while, the increasing élan with which Chicago’s Lyric Opera presents its springtime musical productions. This year’s outsize rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” launches with the shock and the thrill of a revolution underway, as dozens of young men and women in their athletic prime charge down the aisles and leap joyfully onto the klieg-lit stage.
Interview: I first encountered the amazing 27-year-old Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński on a Youtube video. After listening to him sing Vivaldi and Cavalli and Pergolesi in a hearty falsetto with great energy and musicality, I came upon another, equally captivating Orliński video. He was breakdancing. But it will be his phenomenal voice on display with Music of the Baroque on April 22 and 23 at the Harris Theater.
Review: You could hear the chuckles of recognition running through the Oriental Theatre audience when “Pretty Woman: The Musical” opened its largely delightful pre-Broadway run. It’s officially a world premiere that will play Chicago through April 15 before packing up for New York, where another round of development precedes the Broadway opening. The method of “Pretty Woman’s” transformation from the movie that half the American population has memorized line-for-line, into a staged production with entirely original music, is reliably loyal in its adaptation and solidly mainstream. ★★★★