Articles by Nancy Malitz
Review: An almost gemütlich take on Mozart’s 40th Symphony crowned the Chicago Symphony’s matinee concert on June 11 at Orchestra Hall, the final program in a three-week CSO mini-season that refused to let the pandemic sweep away all. If it was not the full Chicago Symphony on stage, the masked, socially distanced contingent was at least a healthy representation, and its sound under conductor Edo de Waart was recognizably vigorous, lustrous and poised.
Report: Some 14 months after giving its last performance at Orchestra Hall, so long banished from its home and audience by the pandemic, the Chicago Symphony begins and ends its 2020-21 season with a three-weekend flurry of concerts under three different conductors starting May 27 with a showcase for the orchestra’s vaunted brass section.
Antidotes: If the COVID-19 virus temporarily froze operations at the nation’s classical music capitals including Chicago, there are definitely signs the industry is getting its groove back. Available for streaming is a concert performed live from the University of Chicago, with no audience in the hall, by Chicago’s outstanding Third Coast Percussion. The Chicago Symphony’s prestigious Civic Orchestra training ensemble marks its 100th anniversary with some Tchaikovsky, digitally assembled from dozens of individual recordings made on smartphones and Zoom audio recorders. Two familiar faces at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Ryan McKinny and Isabel Leonard, offer an alluring cell phone duet from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” And – wait for it – we have a priceless slice of Beethoven whimsy for you at our story’s end.
Review: Two over-riding themes of music director Riccardo Muti’s current Chicago Symphony Orchestra season met in harmony in sold-out concerts Feb. 20-25 at Orchestra Hall – a cycle through all nine Beethoven symphonies and Muti’s desire to highlight the CSO’s key players with solo spotlights, often in world premiere concertos by composers the musicians helped to choose. Thus Muti introduced the CSO’s highly regarded bass clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom in a new work called “Ophelia’s Tears” by French composer Nicolas Bacri, and generously framed the premiere with two Beethoven symphonies, including the Symphony No. 5 in C minor.
Review: “The Queen of Spades” (or as the Russians say, “Pikovaya dama”) is without question a great opera, among Tchaikovsky’s best works of any kind, with enthralling tragedy and voluptuous, soaring music. He even wrote that he considered “The Queen of Spades” to be the culmination of his life’s work. Yet gloriously conducted though it was at Lyric Opera, and sung brilliantly by tenor Brandon Jovanovich as an obsessive gambler in a tailspin and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as the blossoming noblewoman who falls for him, the production is willfully shocking and ultimately confusing.★★★
Review: Pietro Mascagni’s opera “Cavalleria rusticana” led by music director Riccardo Muti and starring the sensational 36-year-old Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili amidst an outstanding cast, was a performance for the ages.
Commentary: Back in the 20th century, opera companies looked to be in danger of obsolescence. The canon of works was European, old and getting older, and sung in foreign languages. The stars with the greatest vocal gifts didn’t necessarily look their parts compared to standards set by Broadway. Amplification was in. DJs were hot. Film made fantasy impossibly real. Opera cost a lot. But now we’re at the onset of opera’s Roaring Twenties, not least here in Chicago, where a young and fearless theater audience is up for anything if the story-telling is good. Here’s a look at what’s ahead.
Report: Tops in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s massive season release detailing the upcoming 2020-21 season is the welcome news that the CSO’s tribute to Beethoven during the 250th anniversary of his birth in 1770 will conclude with his mightiest sacred work, the Missa Solemnis, led by music director Riccardo Muti.
Review: With the bubbling impertinence of John Adams’ foxtrot for orchestra, “The Chairman Dances,” the air turned absolutely electric in the holiday crowd at Orchestra Hall, which was stacked with a younger than usual audience mix on Dec. 19 for a fabulous throwback concert that offered some mid-20th century moments to remember. Rarely has the first half of any concert delivered a more exhilarating blast.
Review: A familiar face and voice in many roles at the Lyric Opera of Chicago over the years, the legendary soprano combines warm singing and strong acting in her role as an American mother on holiday in Florence with a daughter who’s ready for love but is more fragile than she knows. The new production of this 2005 Tony Award winner started out in London and moves on to Sydney, Australia in the New Year. ★★★
Review: As we sit in Hyde Park’s Court Theatre arena, where Sophocles’ ancient drama “Oedipus Rex” unfolds, the audience becomes part of an urgent thriller. Actors prowl the aisles, murmuring that our city Thebes is sinking under “waves of death.” The explanation for this plague and pestilence? Unknown. The king accepts his citizens’ desperate plea to figure out what’s going on, but as he looks into it, he finds evidence pointing to himself. ★★★★
Review: John Frederick Lampe’s opera “The Dragon of Wantley” is a double send-up, which makes it ancient kin to Broadway’s “Spamalot.” The 1737 comic opera was based on a rustic Yorkshire legend about a dragon that devours children “as one would eat an apple,” and the monster’s slaying by a Falstaffian braggart and boozer who gets lucky with a sword. But “The Dragon of Wantley” is also a deadpan musical spoof of Handel, who was huge in London opera at the time. The droll burlesque bubbled out of the pit in a superb revival by Chicago’s vest-pocket Haymarket Opera Company. ★★★★
Review: Hard to know if it was in the spirit of the Chicago Marathon or what, but the Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein opened the Chicago Symphony Center’s nine-part season-long Beethoven 250 celebration of the composer’s 32 piano sonatas with a recital Oct. 13 that definitely went the extra mile. Having delivered a fresh, rhythmically electric and often playful account of five relatively early Beethoven sonatas, Gerstein unleashed – as an encore, no less – Beethoven’s formidable “Eroica” Variations.
Interview: The year 2019 has been for Enrique Mazzola an intense and rewarding breakthrough year he’ll remember for the rest of his life. Named music director designate at Lyric Opera of Chicago, effective with the 2021-22 season, Mazzola talks about learning the ropes in Berlin, Sazburg, New York and Paris and his desire to bring all that experience “energetically to the Lyric,” which he envisions as “a big music home for everybody.”
Review: James Gaffigan, winner 15 years ago of the Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition at age 25, is checking off debuts with the world’s major orchestras and opera companies with work that is typically vibrant and rhythmically vigorous. As the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first guest conductor this season, Gaffigan displayed his musical authority in two substantial and challenging works – Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 and the U.S. premiere of Avner Dorman’s “Eternal Rhythm,” a percussion concerto with CSO principal Cynthia Yeh as soloist.
Interview: If there is anyone in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra whose onstage attire should include a pair of sneakers, it is principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh, who will be at the center of attention for three concerts Oct. 3-5 as the soloist in the widely anticipated U.S. premiere of Avner Dorman’s free-wheeling concerto “Eternal Rhythm.”
Review: In love and determined to get her way, an awesome spitfire turns to Figaro, the barber, for assistance in Rossini’s gleefully funny opera buffa, “The Barber of Seville.” It’s now playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in a Broadway style production, with sun-drenched Moorish touches, roving set pieces on wheels, and a motley crew of singing comedians. ★★★★
Interview: Fresh from Italy’s Ravenna Festival, where he conducts and teaches every summer, Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is plunging into a season-long cycle through Beethoven’s symphonies in anticipation of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 1770. “It will be a document of my admiration and love for the Chicago Symphony,” Muti says. The venture begins with the First and Third Symphonies in concerts Sept. 26-28 at Orchestra Hall.
Review: Riccardo Muti launched the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new season with a fresh revival of Shostakovich’s dark Stalin-era Sixth Symphony, which seemed relevant and contemporary under his command. Then Grieg’s Piano Concerto sparkled anew with Leif Ove Andsnes’ light keyboard touch.
This Just In: The following is a news release written by an arts organization, submitted to and edited by Chicago On the Aisle.
Tickets on sale June 27 for performances at Chicago’s Vittum Theater November 9-10, …
Review: The soprano in the title role of Verdi’s “Aida” struggled with illness, only to be replaced in the second of three performances by a young singer who jumped in without rehearsal. And still the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus led by Riccardo Muti scored a general triumph in their season finale – thanks in no small part to mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili’s brilliant singing as Amneris.
Review: Eugène Ionesco’s “Killing Game” won’t solve life’s Big Riddle – why we’re here at all – for you. But this imaginative production directed by Dado will provide you with acidly brilliant company at A Red Orchid Theatre, where 13 skilled actors play many, many roles – because otherwise their parts would have been exceedingly brief. The citizens are dropping dead in dizzying succession, and in often ridiculous fashion, of an unknown cause. ★★★★
Review: When Jake Heggies’ opera “Moby-Dick” had its world premiere in Dallas in 2010, everything about it was gargantuan and cutting edge technically, with enormous set pieces, elements flying in and out, lighting sufficient to evoke boat-swallowing storms at sea, and whale-size computer graphics. But a new and nifty mid-size design concept, seen at Chicago Opera Theater at the Harris atop Millennium Park, was just as thrilling, even more intense, as it zoomed in on the swirling human action and lurking danger in the vast surround. ★★★★
Commentary: The pool of grand opera subscribers may be slowly shrinking nationally, but one can’t help feeling optimistic about Lyric Opera of Chicago’s long-term prospects as the company continues to refine and redefine itself. The Opera’s nimble branch – Lyric Unlimited – attracted two crowds of 1,100 each to the Harris Theater on March 15 and 17 for its latest chamber opera presentation, “An American Dream.” A loudly enthusiastic audience was the latest evidence of the hard work that Lyric has put into its own expanded vision.
Review: The Ninth Symphony of American composer William Schuman, which Chicago Symphony music director Riccardo Muti conducted for the first time, commemorates a painful moment in modern Italian history – the systematic murder of 335 Italian civilians, with one shot each to the back of the head, by German soldiers in the last weeks of World War II.
Review: One of the world’s preeminent orchestras, the Amsterdam-based Concertgebouw is accustomed to touring, tallying 40 concerts away from home each year. But the brief U.S. tour included Chicago among only four cities treated to its renowned specialities. Richard Strauss’ highly personal 1897 fantasy for enormous orchestral forces “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) exploded with sound reverberating from the depths, gloried in woodwind sparkle and boasted the awesome grandeur of the Concertgebouw’s brass and battery.
Report: A monumental tribute to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth highlights the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2019-20 season, its 10th under the stewardship of music director Riccardo Muti. In a season-long Beethoven immersion, Muti will conduct all nine symphonies and six different pianists will make their way collectively through the 32 sonatas. Muti will also preside over four world and U.S. premieres.
Preview: The consummation of a four-year project to produce Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and the beginning of a “five- or six-year” exploration of early Verdi highlight plans for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2019-20 season, which also marks the 20th anniversary of Andrew Davis’ tenure as music director. After annual creations of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre” and “Siegfried,” the Lyric will cap the “Ring” cycle with “Götterdämmerung” in April 2020, then pull the whole enterprise together with three turns through the complete tetralogy.
Review: When people talk about high-energy spectacle and romantic intensity in Italian opera, “Il Trovatore” is the classic Exhibit A. An instant hit when it opened in Rome, it’s still a winner. Lyric’s three-way production with the San Francisco Opera and the Met is a concept that remains dynamic and fresh, from the flash and wham of gypsy smithies hammering away at their swords in the extravagant Anvil Chorus, to the tragic love triangle that complicates a civil war unfolding. ★★★★
Review: It’s not often that you can pull a forgotten gem out of the trunk, showcase it in a tasteful setting, and reveal it for the magnificently neglected thing that it is. Chicago Opera Theater has succeeded in doing us that favor with Tchaikovsky’s dreamy, naturalistic 1892 opera “Iolanta” – the composer’s last – performed by able forces at the Studebaker, a lovingly refurbished 740-seat jewel-box on Michigan Avenue that also dates from that same last decade of the 19th century. ★★★