Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
Commentary: Mark the name of Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, and draw a heavy red circle around the weekend of Feb. 16-18, 2023, when he returns for his second appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As his CSO debut April 14 displayed generously, this 26-year-old conductor is special. His exquisite reading of Stravinsky’s complete ballet “The Firebird” was like Page 1 news. By the end of that 45-minute demonstration of brilliance, maturity and imagination, I was sold. I was also at the back of a long line of admirers.
Review: A half-dozen descriptors leap to mind as I attempt to describe the musical “Six.” Supercharged, smart, funny, provocative, keen-edged, scintillating, seriously insightful. Oh, wait, that’s more than six. But then “Six” is more than the six characters – the wives of England’s 16th-century King Henry VIII – who give the show its title. It’s greater than the sum of its parts: an infectious show with a youthful vibe that even I, some decades beyond its target audience, would readily go back to enjoy again. ★★★★★
Review: Yuja Wang is a pianistic tiger, a technical wizard and, not least, an indefatigable and audience-savvy performer who can leave 2,000 listeners in a collective meltdown. But if that were the sum of one’s account of her recital April 10 at Orchestra Hall, it would be lacking by half. This remarkable and indeed complete pianist also possesses an unfailing poetic sensibility, a precisely gauged and unerring touch at any speed and a sure grasp of structure. Her formidable program, capped by eight encores, was an immersive delight.
Review: It was supposed to have happened some time ago, a time that dissolved into the miasma of Covid, before the curtain came down most unceremoniously on conductor Andrew Davis’ 20-year stint as music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago. This was to have been his fitting exit, his personal coda — a performance under his leadership of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor with the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Finally, it all came to fruition April 1 at the Lyric Opera House, a titanic account of the Beethoven Ninth before a large and deeply appreciative audience.
Review: On its fragile surface, Eleanor Burgess’ “Wife of a Salesman” appears to be a clever and moderately provocative riff on Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” It isn’t exactly a sequel to Miller’s play, but more of an interlude, a sort of off-stage, between scenes flight of fancy: What might have gone down if Willy Loman’s long-suffering wife had confronted some dame with whom he was consorting on his road trips? ★★★
Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season plans for 2022-23, announced March 29, bring the twice-deferred conclusion to the Riccardo Muti era at Orchestra Hall. The Italian conductor, who will be about a month shy of his 82nd birthday when his tenure ends in June 2023, will go out in grand fashion with Beethoven’s epic “Missa Solemnis.” Beyond its Beethoven finale and a generous offering of audience favorites under the music director’s baton, the new season also promises the world premiere of a still-untitled work by CSO composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery, plus several other firsts.
Commentary: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra under full sonorous sail is now, as it has been throughout my lifetime, something to behold. You might say we’re in the CSO’s season of high tide. Just ahead music director Riccardo Muti conducts Bruckner’s Second Symphony, and Jaap van Zweden, music director of the New York Philharmonic, comes in for the Mahler Sixth, an evening in itself. We got a regal reminder of just what this orchestra can summon – its Solti legacy, as I think of it – last week when Herbert Blomstedt conducted a spectacular account of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat (“Romantic”).
Review: To say the musical “Hadestown” puts a bleak, dark modern spin on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice would be quite an understatement. This gritty and cynical, albeit musically ample, show, winding up a tour stop here under the aegis of Broadway in Chicago, sends mixed – if not muddled – messages about human nature while also recentering the story’s tragedy. Thkough “Hadestown” is packed with vivid characters and provocatively edgy songs, taken as a whole, as an existential screed, it doesn’t bear very close scrutiny. ★★★
Review: In the art of conducting, stylistic sensibility is an ineffable attribute, elusive but also telling. Its absence tends to be conspicuous, and its presence can transform mere correctness into something singular and marvelous — something like the Estonian-American conductor Paavo Järvi conjured in Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on March 5 at Orchestra Hall.
Review: In these distressing times…Who knows, maybe a year from now, my first impulse in writing a review of a pianist’s stunningly great performance will not be to begin with the words in these distressing times. But there it is, and here we are, and the Russian-born pianist Daniil Trifonov’s recital March 6 at Orchestra Hall felt like a gift, a balm, an occasion to rejoice at the wonder of human creativity and its presentation from such masterful hands.
Review: It’s a down-and-out 1930s hotel populated by a weary and worn-out clientele. The hotel doesn’t have a name, nor do its occupants. Black or white, they’re all in the same familiar boat, adrift late into a never-ending day, just living the song they know so well. These are the denizens of “Blues in the Night,” a sort of jukebox revue staged with existential grit by Porchlight Music Theatre. ★★★★
Review: Janet and Annelle, grown daughters of a former slave recently deceased, have traveled from Boston to their birth home in Philadephia to attend to the estate of their late mother, ‘whose remarkable history they are about to discover in an old trunk packed with her diaries. Those vivid accounts of life in the last years of slavery are matched in directness, intelligence and grace by the brilliance of the play that enfolds them, Tyla Abercrumbie’s magnificent “Relentless,” which is winding up its world premiere run at TimeLine Theatre.★★★★★
Review: August Wilson was in Chicago in 2003 for the run-up to Goodman Theatre’s world premiere production of “Gem of the Ocean,” the bedrock story of Wilson’s Century Cycle, a dramatized arc of the African American experience decade by decade through the 20th century. I suspect the playwright, who died in 2005 at age 60, would be profoundly content with Goodman’s revival, a keen-eyed and pitch-sensitive perspective on “Gem of the Ocean” directed by Chuck Smith. ★★★★★
Review: The experiences could not have been more dissimilar in two late-January Baroque concerts, one by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti and the other by the Cleveland-based band Apollo’s Fire, which specializes in early 18th-century music, with its founder and longtime leader Jeannette Sorrell. While the playing was polished in both cases, the two approaches reflected radically different concepts of style.
Review: It wasn’t a pops concert. We know that because the Chicago Symphony Orchestra doesn’t play pops concerts. But music director Riccardo Muti does have quite a history of leading New Year’s Day concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic, and the program Jan. 20 at Orchestra Hall looked a lot like one of those. So let’s call it that – a somewhat displaced New Year’s concert by the CSO and a conductor who was full of celebratory shenanigans.
Review: In the original plan for this season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and music director Riccardo Muti were supposed to be touring Asia about now. But somewhere in the muddle of Covid and politics, that trek was canceled. So the band and its director ended up with three extra weeks at Orchestra Hall. To begin this unexpected residency, Muti and company served up a sensational Beethoven concert Jan. 13.
Review: Reveling in fresh air while wearing a mask against the wrath of Omicron may seem like a paradox. But there’s really nothing else to be said about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s exhilarating concert of Gershwin and Ravel with conductor André de Ridder and pianist Inon Barnatan on Jan. 6 at Orchestra Hall. It was a delightful, delicious reminder of our human spirit and our collective determination to outlast the bug. This first CSO performance of 2022 was needed.
Report: Dale Clevenger, one of the most accomplished and esteemed French horn players of the last half-century and principal of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1966 until 2013, died Jan. 5 in Italy, He was 81. Hailed by critics and audiences worldwide, Clevenger also was lionized by French norn players everywhere for his sound, technique, finesse and fearless music-making.
Review: As we make the turn into 2022, or the second half of a performing arts season still playing out under the threat of Covid’s resurgence, I find myself still resonating to the mid-December production of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus led by Nicholas McGegan. That brilliant achievement and exhilarating experience came at the end of a bumpy series of autumn concerts at Orchestra Hall.
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.