Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
Review: More often than not, references to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra brass section begin with the V-word: vaunted. Since time out of mind, the glorious sound of the CSO brass battery has been held up as exemplar to the orchestral world. And it is always a special occasion when that entire gleaming section takes the spotlight alone for a concert devoted (almost) entirely to its distinctive blended resonance. Such a program on Dec. 15 drew a solidly packed and thunderously appreciative audience to Orchestra Hall.
Review: After retreating into a pandemic-induced streamed radio drama of “A Christmas Carol” last year, Goodman Theatre has once again thrown open its doors to welcome Chicagoans back to the embrace of visible ghosts and the observable reclamation of that tight-fisted misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge. Of the perennially good and touching accounts of “A Christmas Carol” on that stage, the present one may well be the best. ★★★★★
Review: One might reasonably surmise that Music of the Baroque, with its long and rewarding history of performing masterpieces of the 17th and 18th centuries, would produce an assured and persuasive account of Handel’s “Messiah.” So it was surprising and puzzling to hear the uneven and generally quirky performance offered under the direction of Nicholas Kraemer on Nov. 29 at the Harris Theater. The band was splendid – the unexpected co-star of the show, along with mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy.
Review: The young Astor Piazzolla imagined himself heir to the musical tradition of Stravinsky and Bartók, and it took the perceptive intervention of the great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to help the aspiring Argentine composer find his true voice in the accents, rhythms and passion of the tango. The circuitous path that Piazzolla blazed, and the diverse influences he absorbed throughout his creative life, was cleverly and persuasively traced in a lecture-recital by violinist Philippe Quint with pianist Jun Cho on Nov. 27 at Pianoforte Chicago.
Review: As surely as we need a soul-warming thaw in this long pandemic winter, the glittering and heartily human musical fairytale “Frozen” brings that welcome heat to the Cadillac Palace. An all-out production that dazzles the eye even as it connects with emotional truth, this touring show stamps a capital B on Broadway in Chicago – a clever and generous extravaganza bursting with magical effects, buoyed by terrific singing and driven home by nuanced acting. ★★★★★
Review: Given the grand-scaled ideal long reflected in performances of Handel’s “Messiah,” we tend to forget the time, place and musical aesthetics of its origin: that it was composed in 1741, a product of the High Baroque, and that every musical phrase and expressive gesture of this epic oratorio bespeaks its provenance. It was little short of wonderful to be reminded of Handel’s “Messiah,” as opposed to Queen Victoria’s, in a stylishly detailed, intimately framed and yet quite magnificent account by the Chicago choral ensemble Bella Voce.
Review: It is a fiesta of romantic opulence, a tumult of feverish emotions and strained perceptions, this excursion through the magical realism of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The company’s first-ever Spanish-language opera is at once a delight for the eye and a curiosity, roundly entertaining if not squarely set in its dramatic frame. ★★★
Review: E. Faye Butler’s one-woman performance as Fannie Lou Hamer, the daring and stalwart champion of Black voting rights in America’s tumultuous 1960s, is rich in memorable vignettes, just as the song-laden show abounds in energy, wit and aspiration. But the interlude that really gets at what the courageous and remarkable woman was about, what she was up against, comes in Butler’s account of a brutal beating Hamer endured at the hands of the police, out of public view and beyond accountability, when she was jailed on flimsy charges that basically stood for her double offense of being Black and pushing for the right of Black people to vote in the United States. ★★★★
Review: The usual term that springs to mind after a performance like David Strathairn’s solitary turn in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” is tour de force. And while the phrase unquestionably applies, it falls hopelessly short. No, Strathairn’s remarkably physical, one well might surmise bruising, grapple with this historical figure – a Polish Roman Catholic who became the deflected messenger of Nazi Germany’s assault on the Jews – is better described as Olympian. ★★★★
Review: As a duo, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang, two formidable virtuosi in their own right, are nothing short of fierce – or, in optional terms less feral: incandescent, mesmerizing, spectacular. Such were the qualities of their recital together the afternoon of Nov. 7 at Orchestra Hall, a program of remarkable intensity and seriousness, but notable as well for its splendor and its sheer power.
Review: If it seems the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has raised its own high bar in this autumn of revival concerts after the long pandemic shutdown, a key contributing factor has been the quality of conductors who have paraded across the podium at Orchestra Hall. This was evident again under the 82-year-old Polish-born German conductor Marek Janowski, who led a revelatory performance of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony by an ensemble scaled back to the proportions of an 18th-century orchestra.
Review: Kelvin Roston, Jr., in the title role and Timothy Edward Kane as his nemesis Iago make such credible stuff of their desperate psychological contest that one almost forgets how co-directors Gabrielle Randle-Bent and Charles Newell have eviscerated Shakespeare’s play. This pass at “Othello” is a concoction of overwrought stylized mannerisms that ultimately throws away the drama’s tragic consummation. ★★
Review: If the byword of staging Shakespeare’s plays is “the text first,” a production that weaves in two dozen Beatles songs, while freely truncating the text, might fall somewhere between a rolling of the dice and a rolling of the eyes. Yet in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s wacky take on “As You Like It,” a stellar company, everybody from actors to designers, has created an irresistible winner that deserves to pack ’em in, well, “Eight Days a Week.” ★★★★
Review: Each time Manfred Honeck returns to the podium at Orchestra Hall, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s audience knows it’s about to hear something special. Over the last several seasons, the 63-year-old Austrian has delivered an unbroken series of great concerts with the CSO. We can now add one more to the list – a consummate thriller, both visceral and spiritual, capped by a reading of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony that lifted the idea of lyric beauty to a new place.
Review: It was almost startling, like cold water in the face. For the first time this season, which is to say for the first time since the pandemic shut down the Chicago Symphony Orchestra those endless months ago, the band was playing – four weeks into its revival season – under a conductor other than music director Riccardo Muti. But by the end of this 85-minute concert led by Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, I would gladly have returned to hear the program centerpiece, Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major, a second time.
Review: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s audience is likely to find the deferred announcement of the CSO’s winter-spring portion of the 2021-22 season has been worth the wait. The newly revealed line-up is replete with favorite artists and major events — foremost, no doubt, music director Riccardo Muti leading four performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and, at season’s end, Verdi’s full-length opera “Un ballo in maschera.”
Review: It was a prodigious event, pianist Lang Lang’s 93-minute non-stop excursion through Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations before a packed on Oct. 8 at Orchestra Hall. In a blazing display of virtuosity, the celebrated pianist powered through every technical obstacle on a winding course laden with them. All that said, this staggering exhibition had little to do with Bach as a composer of the early 18th century. What unfolded here was a rigorously considered perspective on Bach as viewed through the filter of Liszt.
Review: Conductor Riccardo Muti’s brilliant take on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony capped an Oct. 1 concert by the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall that commenced on formidable and indeed glorious terms with Brahms’ Violin Concerto, featuring Leonidas Kavakos as soloist.
Review: It was at once bizarre and exhilarating to be back at Orchestra Hall with a masked throng seated elbow-to-elbow. Yet the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s glistening, soaring, pin-perfect performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat (“Eroica”) with music director Riccardo Muti on Sept. 23 lent the occasion a marvelous normalcy. This is what had been absent from life for more than a year and a half. This familiar musical brilliance and wordless eloquence. This profound spirituality.
Report: Just hours ahead of Riccardo Muti’s return to Orchestra Hall for the opening concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2021-22 season and with it an end to the CSO’s nearly 19-month, pandemic-induced silence, the orchestra announced Sept. 23 that the 80-year-old maestro had agreed to a one-year extension as music director through June 2023. Compounding that upbeat development was the simultaneous announcement that Muti’s add-on season would include Beethoven’s epic Missa Solemnis.
Review: In his operatic retelling of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Verdi went straight to heart of the tale’s dark and brilliant confusion, its chiaroscuro, and it resonates with bleak authenticity in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s return to the stage. The potent new production of “Macbeth,” devised by David McVicar, was led by Enrique Mazzola in his first flourish as Lyric’s music director. ★★★★★
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.