Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
Review: Lucas Hnath’s dark, wry and bitter play “Death Tax” unfolds like a recitation of humankind’s less savory qualities. Duplicity probably tops the list here, but there’s also ample place for avarice, covetousness, vanity and exploitative guilt. Remarkably enough, this brilliant 90-minute descent into the lower depths of human behavior is as fascinating as it is dismaying – and it’s imbued with visceral truth by a wholly immersed, intimate ensemble at Redtwist Theatre. ★★★★
Review: Old man Rutherford sees the world as a reflection of himself, and he measures and values everyone in it, starting with his family, on a scale of their loyalty to him and their usefulness to the business enterprise that has consumed his life. Imagine being his son – the subordinate, emotionally shackled element in “Rutherford and Son,” playwright Githa Sowerby’s grinding examination of early 20th-century British industrialism and its social ethos, which now storms the stage with withering force at TimeLine Theatre. ★★★★★
Review: The Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck has left some indelible impressions from his appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A Schubert “Great” C major Symphony and a Mahler Fifth somehow never stop resonating in mind. But for anyone on hand at CSO concerts Dec. 12-14, it’s a distinctively Viennese side of Honeck that likely will echo long – and induce a recurring silly smile.
Review: Listening to Henryk Wieniawski’s 1853 Violin Concerto No. 1 in a performance Dec. 6 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with conductor John Storgårds and soloist Ray Chen, I was put forcibly in mind of the previous week’s CSO-sponsored MusicNOW concert. The Wieniawski concerto is so MusicTHEN. It had never before been performed on a Chicago Symphony subscription program. The question that flooded my thoughts as Chen almost effortlessly subdued the work’s profusion of technical challenges was: Why now?
Commentary: This was what it means to be a trouper. But you could also say this was what it means to be a troupe. The final performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Lyric Opera of Chicago, on Dec. 8, brought down the house, and not just because of an all-around superb cast of singers or the stalwart effort of an unscheduled replacement in the title role. What unfolded on this crazy occasion was drama piled upon drama, a quite heroic finish by an injured singer and a response by the audience that bespoke embracing support.
Interview: Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny was Donny-on-the-spot when Lyric Opera of Chicago found itself suddenly bereft of a Don Giovanni to finish out the current run of Mozart’s opera. A change in the lead role had been planned all along, but Lyric got stranded when the scheduled replacement became indisposed. Enter McKinny, who was already in the house, wrapping up his engagement at Lyric as the convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s opera “Dead Man Walking.”
Review: Perhaps the best part of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky’s exhilarating excursion through Donizetti’s Three Queens at Lyric Opera on Dec. 1 is the fact that this remarkable and brave singer will repeat her tour de force – twice. It is an event earmarked not just for enthusiasts of bel canto, but indeed for any operaphile who prizes great drama as the point of great singing. ★★★★★
Review: Over the last dozen of the scores of Christmases that Goodman Theatre has revisited Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” much of the magic surely has centered in the person of Larry Yando. Hehas essentially become Ebenezer Scrooge for the faithful thousands who make this Yuletide pilgrimage of wonder and delight and epiphany. ★★★★
Review: What began as a routine change of cast for the title role in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Lyric Opera of Chicago, with baritone Lucas Meacham giving way to a scheduled replacement for three final performances in December, became a really intriguing development Nov. 25 when the next man up, Davide Luciano, was reported indisposed: The replacement’s replacement will be Ryan McKinny, the vocally and dramatically riveting killer Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” which just closed at Lyric. ★★★★
Interview: Julia Siple thought she knew the “black sheep” character she plays in Lucy Kirkwood’s “Mosquitoes” at Steep Theatre. But in the refining process of rehearsals, Siple discovered that erratic and often outrageous Jenny – who’s also not the sharpest knife in the family drawer – had another, deeply appealing side to her: a tremendous sense of empathy.
This Just In: The following is a news release written by an arts organization, submitted to and edited by Chicago On the Aisle.
Lina Gonzalez-Granados has been named the fourth Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice. As …
Review: If it’s Sunday, it must be Chicago. Had Rudolf Buchbinder strode to the piano to begin his second Beethoven recital in four days at Orchestra Hall, and mistakenly launched into a Mozart sonata, it might have been understandable – if you knew what the pianist’s previous 24 hours had been like. The night before his Nov. 10 matinee program of Beethoven sonatas at Orchestra Hall, Buchbinder had played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 at Carnegie Hall in New York, with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. And an 11th-hour substitute conductor – Vasily Petrenko, standing in for the suddenly ill Mariss Jansons.
Review: Maybe it’s just in keeping with his season-long Beethoven theme, but Chicago Symphony music director Riccardo Muti’s program for concerts Nov. 7-12 at Orchestra Hall is planted squarely at the heart of German Romanticism after Beethoven’s death in 1827. Wagner. Schumann. Brahms. Theodore Thomas, the CSO’s founding music director, might have put together just such a bill of fare in the 1890s, except then Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello would have been (nearly) contemporary music, and even the “Flying Dutchman” Overture would have borne an echo of the lately deceased Wagner’s bold spirit.
Review: Listening to Rudolf Buchbinder zip through four Beethoven sonatas, his playing as crisp and sure as it was fleet, I found myself wondering if this is how Beethoven might have performed these pieces – two early sonatas and the formidable “Appassionata.” It’s not that I thought Buchbinder’s approach was ideal; I didn’t. In fact, for all his impeccable technique, which never failed him even in the “Appassionata’s” blazing finish, and much as I admired his clarity and consistency, I kept hoping for more personality, more emotional complexity.
Interview: The two soloists who tackle Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in performances Nov. 7-12, under the baton of music director Riccardo Muti, will be very familiar faces to regulars at Orchestra Hall – Stephanie Jeong, the CSO’s associate concertmaster, and Kenneth Olsen, the assistant principal cello. They see Brahms’ monumental concerto as a challenge, sure – but more than that, great fun.
Review: The silence, the phenomenal silence in that huge opera house, spoke loudly about the music-drama unfolding onstage: imminent death awaiting the brutal murderer of two teenagers and the desperate effort by a nun to help this roughcut sociopath, now reduced to a tormented and frightened soul, find peace before his execution. This is “Dead Man Walking,” the magnificent opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally, brought to life once more through a shattering confluence of music and theater at Lyric Opera of Chicago. ★★★★★
Review: It was a dream musical encounter of parts Nov. 1 at Orchestra Hall: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with music director Riccardo Muti offering the world premiere of Bernard Rands’ “Dream” and a consummate – and certainly novel – performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Greek wizard Leonidas Kavakos.
Review: David Afkham, German born and 36 years old, has the look of a conductor on a straight line to an eminent place in the world. He just wrapped up his second visit in three years with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, this time a program of core orchestral repertoire: Haydn’s Symphony No. 44 in E minor (“Mourning”), Richard Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. Whatever questions might have lingered about this young conductor were answered in spades. Together, Afkham and the CSO were spectacular.
Review: It was as near the alpha and omega of voice recitals as might be encountered in a span of less than two days: baritone Christian Gerhaher in an all-Mahler program with pianist Gerold Huber, followed by countertenor Iestyn Davies singing mainly Renaissance and Baroque fare with the British viol consort Fretwork, both at the University of Chicago. Though worlds apart by any reckoning, the one was as magical as the other.
Review: The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Sunset Boulevard” won a slew of Tony Awards when it was rolled out on Broadway in 1995, some 45 years after the Billy Wilder film on which it is based had captured a bunch of Academy Award nominations and claimed a few minor ones. I acknowledge these aging triumphs up front because, to my mind, this show, now rather curiously revisited by Porchlight Music Theatre, has come to look as quaint and limited as the silent-film era that its faded, tragic star yearns to relive. ★★
Review: The only thing lacking in Music of the Baroque’s clever and far-bounding concert pitched around the hunt Oct. 22 at the Harris Theater was the valkyrie Brünnhilde’s lusty “Hojotoho!” It would have fit right in with this celebration of the thrill and glory of pursuit.
Review: Alice and Jenny are sisters in name only, or so it might seem, in Lucy Kirkwood’s play “Mosquitoes,” now on fascinating exhibit at Steep Theatre. Alice is a physicist, an acorn fallen not far from the twin oaks of her father (deceased) and her mother (still living). Jenny is not a physicist; she probably couldn’t spell the word. Funny, the binding power of blood. ★★★★
Review: It was quite some display of virtuosity, of sure-fire musical panache, that the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and music director Kent Nagano offered Oct. 15 at Orchestra Hall. With a sumptuous encore of Ravel’s grandly wrought “La valse,” the visitors might have been saying, “We can do this all night.” But by that point, after a sterling account of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Nagano’s splendid ensemble was beyond needing to prove anything. “La valse,” opulent and sensuous and undulating, wasn’t so much a statement as a gift.
Review: The sleeper don’t-miss show of Chicago’s autumn theater season falls under the perhaps inauspicious heading of Steppenwolf’s Young Adult series. Make no mistake, the emphasis here is on “adult,” and Steppenwolf’s superbly cast and directed – indeed, choreographed – staging of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size” is exquisite theater that will reward the most experienced drama buff. ★★★★★
Review: We shall see whether Lyric Opera of Chicago, when it comes under the musical leadership of Enrique Mazzola in 2021, pursues the plan of departing music director Andrew Davis to explore the early, less familiar operas of Giuseppe Verdi. The idea has merit, and I think Mazzola will stick with it. There are signs to support that probability in the example immediately at hand: Verdi’s “Luisa Miller,” which Mazzola himself conducts with spirit, insight and evident belief in the opera’s worth. ★★★
Interview: Pianist Kirill Gerstein, who leads off a season-long excursion through Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas to be performed by a parade of virtuosos at Orchestra Hall, views the sonatas not only as the composer’s most personal medium but also as an inventive progression sometimes skewed in modern reckoning – and sometimes unduly sanctified.
Review: The 90-minute distillation of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” now on display at Writers Theatre is a fast ride to a shattering finish – an emotional grinder that goes instantly and unflinchingly to the core of this still-remarkable story of a woman’s painful self-discovery, and it never lets up. ★★★★★
Review: One might describe J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo” as a historical feel-good play, the historical happy outcome of which didn’t last very long. It’s a process drama that depicts the secret (verbal) slug-out in 1993 between representatives of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in a valiant effort to bring peace to the Middle East. The production created by TimeLine Theatre and co-produced by Broadway in Chicago is tightly wound and well acted, but it cannot escape the play’s strait-jacketed narrative or rise above the fact that none of this feels especially compelling a quarter-century on. ★★
Review: In early 1899, at the heady height of her dizzying fame, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt reopened a Paris theater she had acquired and renamed after herself. Almost immediately, this ever controversial star was upsetting norms again by playing the title role in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” That audacious gambit reimagined is the stuff of Theresa Rebeck’s plainly titled play “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” now on semi-satisfying view at Goodman Theatre. ★★
Review: When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had sounded the last blazing notes of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony to end the first concert in a season-long traversal of the nine symphonies with music director Riccardo Muti, I found myself wondering: Where do we go from here? Onward, of course. But upward? In this most universally embracing and aspiring of musical forms, did Beethoven ever actually transcend the “Eroica,” mind you, his third symphony? What Muti and this virtuoso orchestra did with the monumental “Eroica,” on Sept. 26 at Orchestra Hall, was exhilarating to witness.