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Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson

When Giovanni’s servant feels some real pain, the troupe of singers closes ranks to carry on

Dec 8, 2019 – 11:05 pm
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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.

Ryan McKinny sheds the mantle of a murderer for chameleon cape of Don Giovanni at Lyric

Dec 5, 2019 – 6:19 pm
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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.”

In parade of regal opera, Sondra Radvanovsky inhabits three tragic Donizetti queens at Lyric

Dec 3, 2019 – 3:40 pm
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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. ★★★★★

‘A Christmas Carol’ at Goodman: Amid ghosts, Larry Yando brings flesh to sour old Scrooge

Nov 29, 2019 – 10:15 pm
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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. ★★★★

‘Don Giovanni’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago: Surprise title-role change to heat up the drama

Nov 25, 2019 – 5:08 pm
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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. ★★★★

Role Playing: Julia Siple, as the ‘black sheep’
in smart family, found love in woolly persona

Nov 14, 2019 – 9:25 am
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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.

Jury led by Muti selects Colombian conductor as winner of CSO’s fourth Solti apprenticeship

Nov 12, 2019 – 6:02 pm
Solti Conducting Competition 2019 

Lina Gonzalez-Granados, winner

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 …

After a quick, fraught trek, peripatetic pianist picks up Beethoven sonatas where he left off

Nov 10, 2019 – 11:08 pm
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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.

Muti goes all in with German Romantic music, as a pair of soloists from CSO light up Brahms

Nov 9, 2019 – 1:04 pm
CSO Wagner Brahms Schumann

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.

Rudolf Buchbinder enters the Beethoven fray
in a blaze of technical glory, but lacking heat

Nov 7, 2019 – 5:47 pm
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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.

Two stars of CSO see great fun in challenge of Brahms’ towering concerto for violin, cello

Nov 6, 2019 – 7:01 pm
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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.

‘Dead Man Walking’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago: To killer facing death, a nun bears love’s balm

Nov 5, 2019 – 4:57 pm
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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. ★★★★★

Muti, CSO deliver turmoil of Rands’ ‘Dream,’ and a Beethoven Violin Concerto for the ages

Nov 3, 2019 – 5:31 pm
CSO November 1 2019

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.

David Afkham, a young conductor ascending, scores triple triumph with Chicago Symphony

Oct 31, 2019 – 8:30 am
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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.

In separate recitals – and worlds – two singers explore rich realms of Mahler and early music

Oct 29, 2019 – 9:19 am
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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.

‘Sunset Boulevard’ at Porchlight: Sun has set
on silent-film star lost in melodramatic dream

Oct 25, 2019 – 10:38 pm
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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. ★★

Music of the Baroque puts on hunting weeds for romp over 18th-century fields and streams

Oct 24, 2019 – 9:44 am
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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.

‘Mosquitoes’ at Steep: Physics’ great mystery and the subatomic particles that bind sisters

Oct 19, 2019 – 10:21 am
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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. ★★★★

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, playing
in several perfect accents, delivers a thriller

Oct 16, 2019 – 3:14 pm
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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.

‘The Brothers Size’ at Steppenwolf: The lyrical storm, and heartache, of unconditional love

Oct 15, 2019 – 5:44 pm
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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. ★★★★★

‘Luisa Miller’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago: Verdi rarity is a happy augury for Mazzola era

Oct 14, 2019 – 10:42 am
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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. ★★★

Pianist Kirill Gerstein, launching Beethoven sonata cycle, sees works as mirror of struggle

Oct 12, 2019 – 3:44 pm
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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.

‘A Doll’s House’ at Writers: Ibsen condensed
to a suffocating essence, bursting with breath

Oct 10, 2019 – 10:58 pm
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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. ★★★★★

‘Oslo’ musters two fiercely opposing forces
in throes of history. Theater, yes… but drama?

Oct 5, 2019 – 12:54 pm
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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. ★★

‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ at Goodman: Actress dons breeches to play a prince, sans all that poetry

Oct 1, 2019 – 10:08 pm
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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. ★★

Muti and CSO begin Beethoven cycle with leap from alpha to titanic ‘Eroica’ as the true omega

Sep 27, 2019 – 3:29 pm
9/26/19 8:29:56 PM -- Chicago, IL USA
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, Conductor
Beethoven Consecration of the House Overture
Beethoven Symphony No. 1
Beethoven Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)

© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019

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.

‘King Hedley II’ at Court: Peripheral Wilson propelled to center stage with bruising force

Sep 26, 2019 – 11:30 pm
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Review: Of the 10 plays that make up August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a decade by decade series of tableaux depicting the African American experience through the 20th century, “King Hedley II” may be the least familiar to theater audiences. But this grim, ultimately crushing drama is by no means the least potent. Witness Court Theatre’s knock-out production featuring a stellar cast under the wise direction of Ron OJ Parson. ★★★★★

CSO names Esteban Batallán as first trumpet; Spanish virtuoso assumes new post Sept. 30

Sep 26, 2019 – 12:52 pm
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This Just In: The following is a news release written by an arts organization, submitted to and edited by Chicago On the Aisle.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti has announced the appointment of Esteban …

‘The King’s Speech’ at Chicago Shakespeare: In his personal storm, a monarch finds a port

Sep 23, 2019 – 4:54 pm
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Review: It’s the most improbable of buddy plays, David Seidler’s “The King’s Speech.” It just happens to be true, and its essential humanity is on captivating display in a masterful production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The most common of commoners, an obscure Australian speech therapist on an extended visit to London, is confronted by the most regal of royals: the soon to be crowned George VI of England, who suffers from a lifelong stutter and will find himself thrust into the roiling vortex of a world on the brink of war. ★★★★★

Theater 2019-20: Court begins Oedipus cycle, continues Wilson, reframes ‘Iliad’ in a museum

Sep 22, 2019 – 10:05 am
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Seventh in a series of season previews: Ask Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell to sum up the company’s coming season, and he could begin with quite a list of projects, and he does – eventually. But at the top of Newell’s mind is the big, one might say really big, picture. “Artistically, financially, any way you might want to measure it,” he says, “this is the most ambitious season in Court’s history, and the riskiest.” The season opener is August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” with Kelvin Roston, Jr., in the title role.