Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
Interview: If actors are vessels for the characters they portray, Michael Halberstam has made of himself a grand repository of the diverse populace – living, deceased, earthly and unearthly – immortalized in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Halberstam, artistic director of Writers Theatre, reads the story all alone in a streamed performance that runs through Jan. 3. He says his account strives to put Dickens’ language at the fulcrum of a charged drama that invokes Spirits, plain folk and a covetous old sinner who has cut himself off from the world.
Interview: At this season of the year when the want of Goodman Theatre’s perennial staging of “A Christmas Carol” is keenly felt, we can still rejoice in the abundance of actor Larry Yando’s gifts as that squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner Scrooge. Constrained by the pandemic, Goodman isolated Yando in an audio booth – with the rest of a large cast similarly separated – for a free streamed production of Dickens’ treasured tale that continues through New Year’s Eve. Yando says it was a joy to be back at it.
Report: Cancellation of 110 events produces shortfall of $4.4 million, but 13,000 individuals join big donors in gift-giving.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Like virtually every other performing arts organization across the country and around the world, the …
Report: Lyric Opera of Chicago’s lamentable, if not terribly surprising, announcement that it has canceled the entire remainder of its 2020-21 season comes with a poignant promise of renewed life much as we once knew it: detailed and quite enticing plans for 2021-22, a full season projected to start in the customary month of September.
Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will begin a measured return to live performance Oct. 1 when small groups of musicians commence a series of weekly online chamber concerts from Orchestra Hall under the banner CSO Sessions. The new digital series of on-demand, high-definition video recordings of chamber music – and later chamber orchestra – concerts will feature performances by CSO musicians filmed in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center.
Preview: The celebrated soprano Renée Fleming and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, an emerging star, have collaborated with a diverse cast of singers to create “For the Love of Lyric,” a concert pre-recorded in part on the Lyric stage. The songfest will be offered free online starting at 6 p.m. Sept. 13. Fleming and Bridges offer two views of a singer’s life in our pandemic world.
Preview: Stage director and Court Theatre resident artist Ron OJ Parson has helmed 31 productions of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh plays at theaters around the country. He brings his deep experience with the plays to the final installment in a series of online seminars collectively titled “The World of August Wilson and The Black Creative Voice,” led by University of Chicago professor Kenneth Moore and running through Sept. 29.
Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has canceled its entire autumn slate of concerts and related events through the end of 2020, joining Lyric Opera of Chicago and major performing arts organizations around the country in acknowledging the threat of COVID-19.
Preview: Recall, if you can, four musicians sitting in the same space playing a complex and compelling work, recreating art that peers into who we are as a human collective. With every such experience now deconstructed to a Zoom pastiche, it seems quite remarkable and wonderful indeed to contemplate the Miró Quartet’s forthcoming cycle of the Beethoven string quartets, performed not just live but together, within the same physical boundaries.
Preview: “Sumer is icumen in, loudly sing, cuckoo.” The summer solstice, marking the longest day of the year and the first day of summer, came June 20, a little early this year. And to celebrate the occasion, musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have organized a Virtual Day of Music – streamed performances over a span of eight and a half hours June 21.
Report: Confronted by the pandemic’s stark outlook, Lyric Opera of Chicago has announced cancellation of all productions through December, the entire autumn portion of it 2020-21 season. For now, the company plans to resume operation in January with the new opera “Blue,” a riveting tragedy about a black policeman’s family facing violence and heartbreak by Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Tazewell Thompson. “Blue” was named Opera of the Year on June 17 by the Music Critics Association of North America.
Interview: While Chicago Symphony Orchestramusic director Riccardo Muti has been sidelined at this home in Ravenna, Italy, the time on his hands has allowed him to plow more deeply into treasured masterworks and explore the archive of Chicago Symphony concert recordings to curate an ongoing series of concerts broadcast by WFMT (98.7 FM) and streamed at wfmt.com. In a long-distance chat with Chicago On the Aisle, Muti talked about his programming choices and looked ahead to his post-virus return to Orchestra Hall.
Report: Lyric Opera of Chicago announced April 2 that it will defer its spring musical, “42nd Street,” along with all other spring projects until coming seasons. Meanwhile, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra unveiled collaboration with WFMT to broadcast and stream a series of Tuesday programs from the orchestra’s concert archives and CDs, curated by music director Riccardo Muti.
Report: Like other theaters across metro Chicago, TimeLine suddenly had to suspend a play in mid-run as the coronavirus crisis descended. But in a fortuitous twist of events, the company can offer the remainder of that run to theater-hungry Chicagoans via streaming.
Virus Antidotes: The San Francisco Symphony has announced plans to release its “Keeping Score” profiles a great composers and their pivotal works, narrated by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, for unlimited free streaming on the orchestra’s YouTube channel. Through nine one-hour documentaries, Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony trace the lives of eight influential composers: Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Copland, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Ives, Shostakovich – and Mahler, to whose life and work two segments are devoted. Each episode includes a one-hour concert program by the San Francisco Symphony.
Virus Antidote: Donning our deerstalker sleuthing cap, Chicago On the Aisle is casting around for brilliant options for our suddenly culture-starved readers. The first fruit of our exploration is a spectacular week of free streamed programs from the Metropolitan Opera’s archive of “Met Live in HD” cinema broadcasts, which begin March 16 with Bizet’s “Carmen.”
Report: It was a day to give Friday the 13th a bad name. Lyric Opera of Chicago made the unavoidable but nonetheless stunning decision to cancel the whole of its long-anticipated cycles through Wagner’s “Ring” tetralogy. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra essentially placed its virtuoso forces on paid leave. Broadway in Chicago shut down its main presentations in the Loop. And one after another, theaters large and small posted immediate stoppage of whatever was on their stages along with cancellation of whatever might be next.
Review: Next up for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, March 12-17 at Orchestra Hall, is a concert of Gershwin and Ravel that should be a stylish, jazzy rouser. But for the moment, I’m happy to reflect back on quite a different experience, a consummate display of elegance and the power of understatement: conductor Herbert Blomstedt’s program of Brahms and Mozart with French pianist Bertrand Chamayou.
Review: It’s remarkable how, at the midpoint of Riccardo Muti’s roundly rewarding season-long cycle through Beethoven’s nine symphonies with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a concert of three Beethoven piano trios could leave one wishing for nothing more grand or personal or profound. That sentiment apparently was shared by many another listener in an audience that filled Orchestra Hall to overflowing for the March 2 performance by pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Report: Bass-baritone Eric Owens has withdrawn from the role of Wotan in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s upcoming “Ring” cycles “in order to undergo treatment for ongoing health issues,” Lyric general director Anthony Freud announced March 2.
Review: Imagine the sharp, slashing repartee between Beatrice and Benedick, in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” if Beatrice brought no intellectual edge to the fray, and you have the eponymous figure in “Emma,” the mildly diverting, perfectly harmless and utterly forgettable musical in mid-flight at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. ★★
Tasting Report: California wine producer Ridge Vineyards has long enjoyed a reputation among the most distinctive makers of Zinfandel, especially for two bottlings named for the Sonoma County vineyards where their respective grapes are grown: Geyserville in Alexander Valley and Lytton Springs in Dry Creek Valley. The 2017 vintages of both wines bear out Ridge’s phenomenal way with Zin.
Review: The first impression of Tracy Letts’ bleakly comic play “Bug” is visual, wordless: a young woman, her back to the audience, stock-still and staring out the open doorway of her dumpy motel room. It’s a telling image. We have just met Agnes, a solitary, empty vessel who’s about to be filled with a surreal and lethal form of paranoia. ★★★
Review: Amina and Ryan are both Cleveland police officers. She’s black, he’s white. They’re good, dedicated cops. They’re also lovers. They’re thinking long term, about having a child together. Then Ryan shoots and kills a young black man, and lies about how it went down. Shattered Globe Theatre’s current, and just extended, production directed by Wardell Julius Clark deals acutely with Artigue’s 90-minute play but cannot create substance greater than time and text allow. ★★★
Review: On the one hand, Dan Shore’s opera “Freedom Ride,” now in its world premiere run by Chicago Opera Theater, feels like a simplistic gloss on a turbulent and violent time that is more talked about than evoked. On the other hand, the work’s uncomplicated directness possesses its own fetching appeal, and it echoes through Shore’s gospel-inspired music, front to finish. ★★★
Report: Lyric Opera of Chicago has cast outgoing music director Andrew Davis in a starring role through the 2020-21 season announced Feb. 12. Besides leading three productions, including Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” the opera in which he made his Lyric debut in 1987, Davis will conduct a special performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The Sept. 17 opening night double bill of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” will also offer Lyric patrons their first glimpse of completely redone seating throughout the house.
Review: In the #MeToo era, Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly” might seem awkwardly antiquated, Though it has held the boards as a box office favorite since its premiere in 1904, Lyric Opera of Chicago also evidently saw a problem in mounting its current production, which opened Feb. 6. The night’s program book advances not one but two fulsome arguments on behalf of this work about a beautiful 15-year-old geisha who is rented out in “marriage” to an American naval officer. But it is soprano Ana Maria Martinez’s finely sung, elegantly drawn portrait of Butterfly that once more raises the opera above its own deplorable subject matter and into the realm of high art. ★★★
Review: Political theater comes in all shapes and wrappers, but mostly it’s a genre of righteous harangue. Setting aside the not untenable argument that all theater is political, egregiously agenda-driven drama tends to be heavy handed, obvious and dull. The play in immediate view, Lisa Loomer’s “Roe,” on the boards at Goodman Theatre, offers the dubious amusement of a cartoon: over-drawn, simplistic and, alas, laughable. ★★
Review: It was not perhaps the same bounty that surrounded the world premiere of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in 1808, an evening that also included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the “Choral Fantasy.” Still, at this juncture in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season-long celebration of Beethoven’s 250th year, it felt like a generous opportunity indeed to hear both the Fourth Piano Concerto and the First on the same program, with the excellent and roundly Beethoven-tested pianist Paul Lewis as soloist and Andrew Davis on the podium.
Interview: Conductor Andrew Davis, music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, is taking a time-out from the bit of Wagner he’s preparing over at Lyric – the four-opera, 17-hour “Ring of the Nibelung” – to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with pianist Paul Lewis in some Beethoven. Davis paused backstage at Orchestra Hall to reflect on his late-blooming history with Wagner’s music, his fascination with the monumental “Ring” and the frankly boggling effort required to bring it off.