Articles in Classical + Opera
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: 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.”
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. ★★★★★
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. ★★★★
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ★★★★★
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ★★★
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.
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. ★★★★
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.
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.
Report: Andrew Davis will step down as music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago at the end of the 2020-21 season, to be succeeded by Italian conductor Enrique Mazzola, the company announced on Sept. 12. Mazzola, principal guest conductor at Deutsche Oper Berlin, and until recently artistic and music director of the Orchestre National d’Île-de-France in Paris, made his Lyric debut in 2016 with Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” He returned in 2018 to lead Bellini’s “I Puritani.” He will conduct Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Lyric in October.
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: The scene on the perimeter of Millennium Park in the early evening of June 20 looked a lot more like Lollapalooza than the turnout for a prodigious cello recital. The gathering throng was lined up for blocks, down Michigan Avenue and around the corner and up the Monroe Street hill – 20,000 enthusiasts patiently waiting to filter through security for a rare event, maybe the opportunity of a lifetime: to hear Yo-Yo Ma play J.S. Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello in a non-stop, two-and-a-half-hour immersion.