Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
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.
Report: The Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has canceled his Feb. 2 recital at Lyric Opera of Chicago because of an injury suffered while performing in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” in Bilbao, Spain. In a statement released Jan. 29, Lyric said: “Sir Bryn Terfel, suffered a severe injury from a fall that will not allow him to perform in Chicago this weekend. According to Sir Bryn’s physician, he has fractured the three prominences of his ankle, causing the ankle to partly dislocate and requiring a surgery scheduled for later this week.”
Review: Music of the 18th century came front and center Jan. 24-25 in a sequence of Chicago concerts that spotlighted a solitary violinist in one instance and a small band with a star trumpeter in the other. In programs that worked out unequally, the less satisfying one proved to be as curious as it was outwardly intriguing.
Review: If one had to pick three of Beethoven’s 10 sonatas for violin and piano to represent that facet of the composer in this Beethoven-bountiful 250th anniversary season, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis chose very well indeed for their elegant, fiery and absorbing recital Jan. 22 at Orchestra Hall.
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.”