Articles in Classical + Opera
Preview: “Sumer is icumen in, loudly sing, cuckoo.” The summer solstice, marking the longest day of the year and the first day of summer, came June 20, a little early this year. And to celebrate the occasion, musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have organized a Virtual Day of Music – streamed performances over a span of eight and a half hours June 21.
Report: Confronted by the pandemic’s stark outlook, Lyric Opera of Chicago has announced cancellation of all productions through December, the entire autumn portion of it 2020-21 season. For now, the company plans to resume operation in January with the new opera “Blue,” a riveting tragedy about a black policeman’s family facing violence and heartbreak by Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Tazewell Thompson. “Blue” was named Opera of the Year on June 17 by the Music Critics Association of North America.
Interview: While Chicago Symphony Orchestramusic director Riccardo Muti has been sidelined at this home in Ravenna, Italy, the time on his hands has allowed him to plow more deeply into treasured masterworks and explore the archive of Chicago Symphony concert recordings to curate an ongoing series of concerts broadcast by WFMT (98.7 FM) and streamed at wfmt.com. In a long-distance chat with Chicago On the Aisle, Muti talked about his programming choices and looked ahead to his post-virus return to Orchestra Hall.
Report: Lyric Opera of Chicago announced April 2 that it will defer its spring musical, “42nd Street,” along with all other spring projects until coming seasons. Meanwhile, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra unveiled collaboration with WFMT to broadcast and stream a series of Tuesday programs from the orchestra’s concert archives and CDs, curated by music director Riccardo Muti.
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.
Virus Antidotes: The San Francisco Symphony has announced plans to release its “Keeping Score” profiles a great composers and their pivotal works, narrated by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, for unlimited free streaming on the orchestra’s YouTube channel. Through nine one-hour documentaries, Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony trace the lives of eight influential composers: Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Copland, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Ives, Shostakovich – and Mahler, to whose life and work two segments are devoted. Each episode includes a one-hour concert program by the San Francisco Symphony.
Virus Antidote: Donning our deerstalker sleuthing cap, Chicago On the Aisle is casting around for brilliant options for our suddenly culture-starved readers. The first fruit of our exploration is a spectacular week of free streamed programs from the Metropolitan Opera’s archive of “Met Live in HD” cinema broadcasts, which begin March 16 with Bizet’s “Carmen.”
Review: Next up for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, March 12-17 at Orchestra Hall, is a concert of Gershwin and Ravel that should be a stylish, jazzy rouser. But for the moment, I’m happy to reflect back on quite a different experience, a consummate display of elegance and the power of understatement: conductor Herbert Blomstedt’s program of Brahms and Mozart with French pianist Bertrand Chamayou.
Review: It’s remarkable how, at the midpoint of Riccardo Muti’s roundly rewarding season-long cycle through Beethoven’s nine symphonies with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a concert of three Beethoven piano trios could leave one wishing for nothing more grand or personal or profound. That sentiment apparently was shared by many another listener in an audience that filled Orchestra Hall to overflowing for the March 2 performance by pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Report: Bass-baritone Eric Owens has withdrawn from the role of Wotan in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s upcoming “Ring” cycles “in order to undergo treatment for ongoing health issues,” Lyric general director Anthony Freud announced March 2.
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: On the one hand, Dan Shore’s opera “Freedom Ride,” now in its world premiere run by Chicago Opera Theater, feels like a simplistic gloss on a turbulent and violent time that is more talked about than evoked. On the other hand, the work’s uncomplicated directness possesses its own fetching appeal, and it echoes through Shore’s gospel-inspired music, front to finish. ★★★
Report: Lyric Opera of Chicago has cast outgoing music director Andrew Davis in a starring role through the 2020-21 season announced Feb. 12. Besides leading three productions, including Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” the opera in which he made his Lyric debut in 1987, Davis will conduct a special performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The Sept. 17 opening night double bill of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” will also offer Lyric patrons their first glimpse of completely redone seating throughout the house.
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.
Review: In the #MeToo era, Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly” might seem awkwardly antiquated, Though it has held the boards as a box office favorite since its premiere in 1904, Lyric Opera of Chicago also evidently saw a problem in mounting its current production, which opened Feb. 6. The night’s program book advances not one but two fulsome arguments on behalf of this work about a beautiful 15-year-old geisha who is rented out in “marriage” to an American naval officer. But it is soprano Ana Maria Martinez’s finely sung, elegantly drawn portrait of Butterfly that once more raises the opera above its own deplorable subject matter and into the realm of high art. ★★★
Review: It was not perhaps the same bounty that surrounded the world premiere of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in 1808, an evening that also included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the “Choral Fantasy.” Still, at this juncture in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season-long celebration of Beethoven’s 250th year, it felt like a generous opportunity indeed to hear both the Fourth Piano Concerto and the First on the same program, with the excellent and roundly Beethoven-tested pianist Paul Lewis as soloist and Andrew Davis on the podium.
Interview: Conductor Andrew Davis, music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, is taking a time-out from the bit of Wagner he’s preparing over at Lyric – the four-opera, 17-hour “Ring of the Nibelung” – to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with pianist Paul Lewis in some Beethoven. Davis paused backstage at Orchestra Hall to reflect on his late-blooming history with Wagner’s music, his fascination with the monumental “Ring” and the frankly boggling effort required to bring it off.
Report: The Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has canceled his Feb. 2 recital at Lyric Opera of Chicago because of an injury suffered while performing in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” in Bilbao, Spain. In a statement released Jan. 29, Lyric said: “Sir Bryn Terfel, suffered a severe injury from a fall that will not allow him to perform in Chicago this weekend. According to Sir Bryn’s physician, he has fractured the three prominences of his ankle, causing the ankle to partly dislocate and requiring a surgery scheduled for later this week.”
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: Music of the 18th century came front and center Jan. 24-25 in a sequence of Chicago concerts that spotlighted a solitary violinist in one instance and a small band with a star trumpeter in the other. In programs that worked out unequally, the less satisfying one proved to be as curious as it was outwardly intriguing.
Review: If one had to pick three of Beethoven’s 10 sonatas for violin and piano to represent that facet of the composer in this Beethoven-bountiful 250th anniversary season, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis chose very well indeed for their elegant, fiery and absorbing recital Jan. 22 at Orchestra Hall.
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. ★★★★