Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
As arts groups aim at winning audience back, CSO hits the target in back-to-back programs
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
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
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
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.
Two masterly maestros meet some crazy kids: ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ ‘Albert Herring’ on stage
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!
Post-pandemic, CSO playing at familiar peak, but audiences have thinned at Orchestra Hall
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’
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. ★★★
As speculation on Muti’s successor ramps up, rumor mill offers a spin: He may not be leaving
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.
After a dozen years, impact of Riccardo Muti
on CSO can be heard in large ways and small
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.
Muti’s crowning year as CSO music director begins with a flourish, and more is just ahead
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.
Haymarket Opera lifts the veil from Bologne’s ‘L’Amant anonyme’ to reveal a comedic gem
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. ★★★★
With Muti sidelined, young conductor steps up to lead Chicago Symphony in Brahms triumph
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.
Muti tests positive, cancels CSO concerts; apprentice maestro steps in to lead program
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.
Theater for two: Kids in search of themselves, and a pop-up polemic that goes off the rails
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” ★★
Fresh feathering of Chekhov’s ‘Seagull’ turns debut of Steppenwolf space into mottled affair
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. ★★
Latino brothers in flight from a white world, eluding death in existential ‘Last Hermanos’
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. ★★★★
Starry week: CSO violinist Stephanie Jeong steps up, beloved pianist Kissin comes ‘home’
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.
When rambunctious comedy meets fine cast, all ends well for Bard at Chicago Shakespeare
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. ★★★★
Muti spotlights Black composers, historical
and contemporary, in pair of CSO programs
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.
For seamstress at the end of her thread, love betrays wrinkles, snags in ‘Intimate Apparel’
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.★★★★★
Van Zweden paces Chicago Symphony across sweeping and desolate plain of Mahler Sixth
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.
Meteoric maestro Klaus Mäkelä blazes through with CSO, and we’re back in his orbit next year
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.
Wives of Henry VIII reassess a bloody chapter in high-energy, smartly crafted musical ‘Six’
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. ★★★★★
Pianist Yuja Wang delivers an electric recital, then makes it a party with blizzard of encores
Review: Yuja Wang is a pianistic tiger, a technical wizard and, not least, an indefatigable and audience-savvy performer who can leave 2,000 listeners in a collective meltdown. But if that were the sum of one’s account of her recital April 10 at Orchestra Hall, it would be lacking by half. This remarkable and indeed complete pianist also possesses an unfailing poetic sensibility, a precisely gauged and unerring touch at any speed and a sure grasp of structure. Her formidable program, capped by eight encores, was an immersive delight.
As Andrew Davis leads the Beethoven Ninth, spirit of Lyric Opera’s family spreads the joy
Review: It was supposed to have happened some time ago, a time that dissolved into the miasma of Covid, before the curtain came down most unceremoniously on conductor Andrew Davis’ 20-year stint as music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago. This was to have been his fitting exit, his personal coda — a performance under his leadership of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor with the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Finally, it all came to fruition April 1 at the Lyric Opera House, a titanic account of the Beethoven Ninth before a large and deeply appreciative audience.
When salesman’s wife confronts his mistress, comedy flashes – and then nobody’s laughing
Review: On its fragile surface, Eleanor Burgess’ “Wife of a Salesman” appears to be a clever and moderately provocative riff on Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” It isn’t exactly a sequel to Miller’s play, but more of an interlude, a sort of off-stage, between scenes flight of fancy: What might have gone down if Willy Loman’s long-suffering wife had confronted some dame with whom he was consorting on his road trips? ★★★
CSO punctuates its 2022-23 season with ‘new,’ Riccardo Muti bids farewell as music director
Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season plans for 2022-23, announced March 29, bring the twice-deferred conclusion to the Riccardo Muti era at Orchestra Hall. The Italian conductor, who will be about a month shy of his 82nd birthday when his tenure ends in June 2023, will go out in grand fashion with Beethoven’s epic “Missa Solemnis.” Beyond its Beethoven finale and a generous offering of audience favorites under the music director’s baton, the new season also promises the world premiere of a still-untitled work by CSO composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery, plus several other firsts.
Spring reveals Chicago Symphony a-bloom, with splendors of Bruckner and Mahler ahead
Commentary: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra under full sonorous sail is now, as it has been throughout my lifetime, something to behold. You might say we’re in the CSO’s season of high tide. Just ahead music director Riccardo Muti conducts Bruckner’s Second Symphony, and Jaap van Zweden, music director of the New York Philharmonic, comes in for the Mahler Sixth, an evening in itself. We got a regal reminder of just what this orchestra can summon – its Solti legacy, as I think of it – last week when Herbert Blomstedt conducted a spectacular account of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat (“Romantic”).
Musical ‘Hadestown,’ updating Orpheus myth, spins dark modernist tale of two dreamy kids
Review: To say the musical “Hadestown” puts a bleak, dark modern spin on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice would be quite an understatement. This gritty and cynical, albeit musically ample, show, winding up a tour stop here under the aegis of Broadway in Chicago, sends mixed – if not muddled – messages about human nature while also recentering the story’s tragedy. Thkough “Hadestown” is packed with vivid characters and provocatively edgy songs, taken as a whole, as an existential screed, it doesn’t bear very close scrutiny. ★★★
Paavo Järvi, his musical French impeccable, leads CSO in stylish ‘Symphonie fantastique’
Review: In the art of conducting, stylistic sensibility is an ineffable attribute, elusive but also telling. Its absence tends to be conspicuous, and its presence can transform mere correctness into something singular and marvelous — something like the Estonian-American conductor Paavo Järvi conjured in Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on March 5 at Orchestra Hall.