Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ★★
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.
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.
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!
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.
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. ★★★
Commentary: Riccardo Muti’s nominal final season as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra commenced with a dazzling first wave of concerts capped by the announcement of an extensive North American tour in January. Then, no sooner had Muti wrapped up his first three weeks at Orchestra Hall than the British website Slipped Disc posted a hot rumor that Muti isn’t going anywhere after all – that the CSO intends to title him music director emeritus and that he will have a significant presence in Chicago for the 2023-24 season. The CSO’s comment, in essence: Stay tuned.
Review: An account of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert Sept. 29 with music director Riccardo Muti could begin at any point in the program of works by Rossini, Mozart and Prokofiev – and the gist would be the same. Whether heard as a display of musical elegance, style and wit or as an exercise in sheer sonorous splendor, the whole effect, front to back, was spectacular. No soloist. None needed. The purely orchestral exhibition spoke volumes about why this orchestra led by this conductor is very special.
Review: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened its 2022-23 season, Riccardo Muti’s last as music director, collaborating with pianist Yefim Bronfman in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Allowing that a “definitive” account doesn’t exist in the universe of the performing arts, we surely might hedge with the word consummate in describing the musicianship, poetics and interpretative authority on display in that splendid and riveting performance.
Review: Haymarket Opera Company’s delightful production of Joseph Bologne’s “L’Amant anonyme,” in the perfectly proportioned Jarvis Opera Hall that has become its new home at DePaul University, brought to mind a night at the jewel-box opera at Versailles, outside Paris. Not so ornate as Versailles perhaps, no cozy little boxes from which to view the proceedings. But I suspect Bologne would have relished revisiting this 18th-century comedy – and hearing it sung, and spoken, in such excellent French that he might have thought himself transported back to that time and place. ★★★★
Review: Like the invited guests at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s open morning rehearsal on June 16, Lina González-Granados took a seat at Orchestra Hall to watch CSO music director Riccardo Muti lead the troops through Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. After a break, the orchestra would be joined onstage by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, one of the most celebrated musicians in the world, for a run-through of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the other work on that evening’s concert program, with Muti on the podium. But that’s not exactly what happened. Muti had tested positive for Covid and was done for the day. González-Granados, his resident conducting apprentice, sprang into action, taking over the rehearsal and scoring an impressive success in the evening concert.
Report: Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has tested positive for Covid-19 and has canceled his scheduled concerts with the orchestra June 16-18 at Orchestra Hall, the CSO announced. Stepping in for Muti will be the Chicago Symphony’s Sir Georg Solti conducting apprentice, Lina González-Granados, who will lead the originally scheduled program of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and the Beethoven Violin Concerto with soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Reviews: Plays for two actors, known in the theater world as two-handers, make special and perhaps obvious demands on the players, the director and certainly the playwright. Placing the whole burden of a play’s instigation, elaboration and denouement on two speakers is to set a high bar for success, as demonstrated by Gracie Gardner’s “Athena” at Writers Theater and Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady” at TimeLine Theatre. The former stumbles when it abandons language for physicality; the latter veers from charm and wit into polemic, wit driven out by cant. “Athena” ★★ “The Chinese Lady” ★★
Review: There has been a steady stream of English renderings of “The Seagull” since the comedy – Chekhov’s own term – first saw light in 1896. Now Steppenwolf Theatre adds to that catalog with an adaptation created by ensemble member Yasen Peyankov, the opening flourish for the company’s splendid new in-the-round Ensemble Theater in its grand new building next door to the old one on North Halsted. I came away from this “Seagull” – Peyankov has dropped “The” – with mixed impressions from every perspective. ★★
Review: Miguel and his brother Julio are in a bad place, two Latinos on a desperate run from pursuers who want to catch them before they can make it across the border to Mexico and safety. The hunters on their trail may be federal agents, or they could be hired guns, or perhaps even white vigilantes out to expunge the countryside of any and all Latinos. That part is not entirely clear in Exal Iraheta’s gripping play “Last Hermanos.” It really doesn’t matter. Somebody is closing in on the brothers, and their flight has stalled. ★★★★
Commentary: It felt very much like Old Home Weekend at Orchestra Hall when violinist Stephanie Jeong, associate concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, stepped into the spotlight for three concerts, then ceded center stage to one of the world’s preeminent pianists, Yevgeny Kissin, who has become not just a Chicago favorite but something closer to an adopted son.
Review: ‘Tis neither fish nor fowl, Shakespeare’s comical-radical and highly problematical play “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Like its main characters, the plot is tormented. Small wonder “All’s Well” has been lumped together with “Measure for Measure,” “Timon of Athens,” “The Merchant of Venice” and a couple of others as “problem” plays. When the rhetorical dust settles and the curtain falls, we’re not quite sure what to feel. But Chicago Shakespeare’s production of “All’s Well” goes a long way toward focusing our ultimate reaction by sharpening the comedy. It’s a very funny show. ★★★★
Commentary: Riccardo Muti’s penultimate podium stint with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for this season produced a stirring testimonial to the place of Black composers in the overdue reordering of life in America’s concert halls. On view was the work of three impressive artists: the historical figures Florence Price and William Grant Still and the CSO’s masterful composer in residence, Jessie Montgomery.
Review: Director Tasia A. Jones likens Lynn Nottage’s play “Intimate Apparel” to old photographs of ordinary people, Black people, who once lived and loved, who were needful of love, who had hopes and dreams. People who lived and died and disappeared, but whose lives mattered. I might add to that plainly spoken insight the flaws and folly of those folks, as well as their basic goodness. Such are the multifaceted, profoundly human images that register in Northlight Theatre’s magnificent framing of “Intimate Apparel,” as finely crafted a show as I’ve seen on that stage.★★★★★
Review: Gustav Mahler liked to say that in his symphonies he created whole worlds. Immoderate as that may sound, it’s at least true that his Sixth Symphony filled the whole stage at Orchestra Hall when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the work April 22 with conductor Jaap van Zweden. Indeed, the sprawling 80-minute Sixth Symphony, the only work on the program, filled the whole weekend — with four performances rather than the typical three for CSO subscription programs. Like his works, Mahler’s popularity is vast.
Commentary: Mark the name of Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, and draw a heavy red circle around the weekend of Feb. 16-18, 2023, when he returns for his second appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As his CSO debut April 14 displayed generously, this 26-year-old conductor is special. His exquisite reading of Stravinsky’s complete ballet “The Firebird” was like Page 1 news. By the end of that 45-minute demonstration of brilliance, maturity and imagination, I was sold. I was also at the back of a long line of admirers.
Review: A half-dozen descriptors leap to mind as I attempt to describe the musical “Six.” Supercharged, smart, funny, provocative, keen-edged, scintillating, seriously insightful. Oh, wait, that’s more than six. But then “Six” is more than the six characters – the wives of England’s 16th-century King Henry VIII – who give the show its title. It’s greater than the sum of its parts: an infectious show with a youthful vibe that even I, some decades beyond its target audience, would readily go back to enjoy again. ★★★★★