Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
Review: The gypsy femme-fatale Carmen of Georges Bizet’s opera is more than figuratively a force of nature: She’s an authentic creature of the natural world where life, as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed, is “nasty, brutish and short.” The truth of that hard reality came to mind as I watched Chicago Opera Theater’s concert distillation of “Carmen,” a novel experience that might be described as weird, intriguing and notably short. ★★★
Review: It was a musical setting of the Mass like no other, sung by a single vocalist like no other. And as a musical, indeed quite theatrical, experience, Davóne Tines’ mesmerizing performance of his Recital No. 1: Mass, on Aug. 31 with pianist Adam Nielsen at the Ravinia Festival, was unlike any other in memory.
Report: A coalition of more than 65 performing arts venues and producers across Chicagoland has announced Covid-19 vaccination and mask requirements for audiences through the end of 2021. The unified Covid protection protocol, which takes effect Sept. 1 for indoor productions, requiries audience members to provide proof of vaccination or negative test certification upon entry and to wear masks.
Report: Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has canceled his scheduled two-week October residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor. The 76-year-old conductor and music director laureate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was to lead CSO concerts at Orchestra Hall Oct. 21-23 and Oct. 28-30. A statement from Tilson Thomas’ national press agent said: “After a series of tests, Michael Tilson Thomas was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required an immediate operation. The operation at the UCSF Medical Center was successful.”
Review: Can something that’s free qualify as a bargain? In the case of the Grant Park Music Festival, which is free all summer to the legion of picnickers who flood the sprawling green beyond Pritzker Pavilion, those serenades sometimes exceed the pedestrian notion of bargain. Sometimes the occasion is more like an opportunity beyond price. Witness conductor Eun Sun Kim’s thrilling, indeed mind-altering and game-changing account of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony with the Grant Park Festival Orchestra on July 23.
Report: Brick by reconstructive brick, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s emergence from its long pandemic null into new and full vigor is taking form. A newly released second wave of concert dates, extending into the first weekend of 2022, provides healthy signs of a recognizable season, not only for the orchestras but also for the chamber music, recitals and jazz performances that keep the stage lights burning at Symphony Center.
Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at full strength and with music director Riccardo Muti back on the podium, returns to Orchestra Hall on Sept. 23 to launch its 2021-22 season, an embrace of normalcy announced by the orchestra just days after the completion of a pandemic-constrained “season” reduced to just three weeks. Residual effects of the pandemic still resonated in the CSO’s limited new-season announcement, which offered complete details only for Muti’s opening three-week residency.
Review: The second concert program of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s three-week, toe-in-the-water post-pandemic “season” almost took one back to that halcyon time before elbow-bumps replaced hand-shakes. The concert’s final flourish felt and sounded like the once-and-future CSO: a rousing, conspicuously virtuosic performance of Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta” that even gave the impression of a stage filled with musicians.
Review: It was like music’s great beating heart could not ultimately be stilled, this ferocious burst of timpani and bass drum followed by a stentorian peal of brasses. When had the proclamation of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” ever carried a more exhilarating message? The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, music itself, had returned to Orchestra Hall.
Preview: As Lyric Opera of Chicago moves toward that moment opera buffs in Chicagoland have long awaited, the post-pandemic opening of a new season Sept. 17, the company’s music director-designate, Enrique Mazzola, gives the impression of an artist well ahead of the curve. Speaking about Lyric’s new production of Verdi’s early “Macbeth,” which will bring live opera back to Chicago, the Spanish-born Italian conductor sounds like he’s already there.
Interview: Under the pandemic’s abiding if perhaps fading shadow, Lyric Opera of Chicago has fashioned a virtual salute to its exiting music director, Andrew Davis. With some very fine singers as well as the Lyric chorus, Davis led an ambitious video in his honor that debuts May 16. In a chat with Chicago On the Aisle, the maestro reflected on his two decades at the company’s artistic helm.
Preview: Conductor Enrique Mazzola, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new music director-designate, presides at the piano over a selection of rare love songs by famous Italian composers, sung by the young professionals in training at Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center. Titled “Sole e Amore” – Sun and Love – the free program streams at 6 p.m. Feb. 21.
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.