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Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson

CSO and Chorus offer Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’: Polished sound, but scant fury, signifying little

Apr 16, 2024 – 4:11 pm
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Review: Under the baton of James Conlon, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus presented “Elijah” in performances April 11-13, of which I heard the last. Like the oratorio on its surface, which is to say in its entirety, what I heard was altogether above reproach. The only question was why it was undertaken at all.

Klaus Mäkelä is named CSO music director; Finnish conductor to succeed Muti in 2027

Apr 2, 2024 – 9:17 am
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Report: Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, 28, whose meteoric rise on the international concert scene has electrified audiences and elicited rapturous critical praise, was named April 2 as the 11th music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The appointment will put Mäkelä in charge of two of the world’s preeminent orchestras, starting simultaneously in September 2027 when his Chicago directorship will be twinned with his new post as principal conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Baroque bounty: Haymarket revives oratorio, Bella Voce turns spotlight on its band Sinfonia

Mar 29, 2024 – 11:35 am
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Commentary: If you know where to look, and you don’t have to look far, you’ll find Baroque music so well served in Chicago that our musical locus can sometimes feel like Venice, Leipzig or London in the early 1700s. On recent consecutive nights, the ever-enchanting Haymarket Opera offered what was apparently the first performance in 300 years of Maria Margherita Grimani’s 1715 melodrama “The Beheading of John the Baptist” (or “La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista”), and the splendid vocal ensemble Bella Voce showcased its instrumental component Sinfonia in its first stand-alone concert. The adjacent events, March 22-23, conjured an aura of subtle riches.

With word waiting on next CSO music director, Jakub Hrůša leads a spectacular ‘Zarathustra’

Mar 17, 2024 – 5:45 pm
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Review: Even in a Chicago Symphony season that has produced an array of memorable concerts, the March 14 program with conductor Jakub Hrůša is likely to stand out for a long time to come. The virtuosic pairing of Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra’ with Bartók’s suite from “The Miraculous Mandarin” was at once a reminder of the CSO’s comprehensive brilliance and a testament to Hrůša’s extraordinary prowess.

‘Matchbox Magic Flute’ at Goodman Theatre: Mozart’s opera spun afresh in a whimsical key

Mar 12, 2024 – 8:34 pm
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Review: Director Mary Zimmerman’s take on Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” at Goodman Theatre falls somewhere between the work’s original conception as a singspiel, literally a sung play, and a sort of heedless “Hey, guys, let’s put on a musical.” Only here and there does it get its chin above the opera bar, and yet it is altogether delightful, a rambunctious good time. And it has one of the best dragons ever. ★★★★

Chicago Symphony gets $21M Negaunee gift for education, wide range of other programs

Mar 8, 2024 – 12:13 pm
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Review: The Chicago-based Negaunee Foundation, a longtime donor of major grants to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its diverse educational program, has made a new $21 million gift to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. It is one of the largest single donations the CSO has ever received.

In a who-knew debut, Czech conductor leads electric Beethoven with Chicago Symphony

Mar 3, 2024 – 8:44 pm
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Review: Conductors making a debut with the Chicago Symphony are usually preceded by reputation. Which makes an exception of the Czech visitor Petr Popelka, who despite his recent rapid ascent in Europe is a virtual unknown in the U.S. That should change quickly. Popelka’s appearance with the CSO on March 1-2 was a stunning discovery. After hearing his brilliant turn through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony – twice – I can only assume the CSO will bring this well-schooled and artistically assured conductor back to Orchestra Hall asap.

Chicago Symphony’s 2024-25 season reveals zesty ingredients of Muti, Mahler and Mäkelä

Mar 1, 2024 – 12:01 pm
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Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s newly announced plans for its 2024-25 season tout a bundle of enticing concerts, not least a “heroic” all-Beethoven program led by CSO music director emeritus for life Riccardo Muti and his season-ending return with a high-powered rarity, Berlioz’ “The Damnation of Faust,” a spectacle for orchestra, chorus and soloists. The meteoric young Finnish maestro Klaus Mäkelä (above) returns to Orchestra Hall for two programs late in the season.

With new CSO music director yet to be named, guest conductors make impressive showings

Feb 27, 2024 – 1:03 pm
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Commentary: Like the doubtless confused plant life in this bizarrely warm season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra seems to be surging toward spring with stunning vitality amid an aura of great expectation. We’re now plunging toward an untimed announcement of a new music director. The last couple of weeks have spotlighted two very fine conductors, Paavo Jarvi (above) and Hannu Lintu, and the spring stretch of the season promises several more.

Amsterdam invites CSO to mega Mahler fest; van Zweden will lead 6th and 7th Symphonies

Oct 17, 2023 – 5:04 pm
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Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which under Georg Solti built a formidable reputation in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler that continues undiminished to the present day, has been invited to an ambitious international Mahler festival in May 2025 to be hosted by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Five orchestras from three continents will contribute to a complete cycle of Mahler’s nine completed symphonies, plus “Das Lied von der Erde” and the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth.

‘Flying Dutchman’ at Lyric Opera: A dark tale made brilliant by the voices of a doomed pair

Sep 29, 2023 – 3:17 pm
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Review: The sorry plight of Wagner’s Senta, the lass who obsesses about the accursed sea captain in “The Flying Dutchman,” always puts me in mind of Schubert’s plaintive Gretchen at the spinning wheel, bereft of peace and heavy of heart. “Dutchman” is one dark opera, populated by distraught or deeply neurotic characters for whom there is no relief and never will be. Still, there is a certain radiance to the bleakness and it suffuses a compelling account of Wagner’s music-drama at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Muti is CSO Music Director Emeritus for Life; honor caps grand Beethoven Missa Solemnis

Jun 25, 2023 – 8:33 pm
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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.

With CSO’s grand Beethoven finish still ahead, Muti stamped directorship with great Schubert

Jun 20, 2023 – 4:07 pm
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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.

With a transcendent Mahler Ninth Symphony, Czech rises in CSO directorship sweepstakes

Jun 12, 2023 – 11:56 am
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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.

As Muti era spins toward close, he spotlights musicians who helped create an epic splendor

May 28, 2023 – 9:29 pm
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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.

When Yo-Yo Ma joins CSO for a concert, crowd goes wild; and then the scene gets really mad

May 3, 2023 – 2:49 pm
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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.

Russian conductor takes up Shostakovich 8th, leading CSO deep into a complex spiritual web

May 1, 2023 – 3:28 pm
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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.

French conductor Fabien Gabel, in CSO debut, makes subtly dazzling splash with Stravinsky

Apr 21, 2023 – 8:22 pm
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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.

As arts groups aim at winning audience back, CSO hits the target in back-to-back programs

Mar 27, 2023 – 7:25 pm
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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

Mar 19, 2023 – 11:02 pm
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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

Feb 20, 2023 – 1:16 pm
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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

Feb 19, 2023 – 6:51 pm
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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

Feb 4, 2023 – 11:33 am
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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

Nov 11, 2022 – 12:29 pm

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’

Nov 5, 2022 – 9:45 am

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

Oct 12, 2022 – 5:00 pm
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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

Oct 1, 2022 – 4:15 pm

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

Sep 27, 2022 – 1:17 pm
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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

Jun 24, 2022 – 12:11 pm
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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

Jun 17, 2022 – 4:10 pm
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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.