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Starry week: CSO violinist Stephanie Jeong steps up, beloved pianist Kissin comes ‘home’

May 16, 2022 – 11:25 pm
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Commentary: It felt very much like Old Home Weekend at Orchestra Hall when violinist Stephanie Jeong, associate concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, stepped into the spotlight for three concerts, then ceded center stage to one of the world’s preeminent pianists, Yevgeny Kissin, who has become not just a Chicago favorite but something closer to an adopted son.

Muti spotlights Black composers, historical
and contemporary, in pair of CSO programs

May 8, 2022 – 5:18 pm
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Commentary: Riccardo Muti’s penultimate podium stint with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for this season produced a stirring testimonial to the place of Black composers in the overdue reordering of life in America’s concert halls. On view was the work of three impressive artists: the historical figures Florence Price and William Grant Still and the CSO’s masterful composer in residence, Jessie Montgomery.

Van Zweden paces Chicago Symphony across sweeping and desolate plain of Mahler Sixth

May 4, 2022 – 12:14 pm
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Review: Gustav Mahler liked to say that in his symphonies he created whole worlds. Immoderate as that may sound, it’s at least true that his Sixth Symphony filled the whole stage at Orchestra Hall when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the work April 22 with conductor Jaap van Zweden. Indeed, the sprawling 80-minute Sixth Symphony, the only work on the program, filled the whole weekend — with four performances rather than the typical three for CSO subscription programs. Like  his works, Mahler’s popularity is vast.

Meteoric maestro Klaus Mäkelä blazes through with CSO, and we’re back in his orbit next year

Apr 21, 2022 – 11:37 am
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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.

Pianist Yuja Wang delivers an electric recital, then makes it a party with blizzard of encores

Apr 12, 2022 – 5:31 pm
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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.

Opera bio-drama ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ throws heat as it casts a spell on Lyric stage

Apr 3, 2022 – 9:57 pm
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Review: The Lyric Opera of Chicago has had its share of tough breaks in recent years, with ambitious projects felled by Covid including an international Wagner “Ring” festival that had been many years in the making. But what this determined company has accomplished since then is balm to the soul in an uneasy world. On the boards now through April 8 is a stunning success, a not-to-miss opera with a magnificent heart, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” ★★★★★

As Andrew Davis leads the Beethoven Ninth, spirit of Lyric Opera’s family spreads the joy

Apr 3, 2022 – 10:09 am
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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.

CSO punctuates its 2022-23 season with ‘new,’ Riccardo Muti bids farewell as music director

Mar 29, 2022 – 9:14 pm
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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.

Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago: Love and death in the pitch and tumult of war

Mar 21, 2022 – 6:07 pm
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Review: What profound, disturbing harmonies permeate the Lyric Opera House in its current production of “Tosca.” It is wartime Rome, combustible and turbulent. The painter Cavaradossi and his lover, the opera star Tosca, are trapped in history’s maw. Soprano Michelle Bradley as the charismatic diva, tenor Russell Thomas as Cavaradossi and baritone Fabián Veloz as their conniving nemesis Scarpia make a compelling threesome in this vintage Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production. ★★★★

Spring reveals Chicago Symphony a-bloom, with splendors of Bruckner and Mahler ahead

Mar 18, 2022 – 7:29 pm
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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”).

Paavo Järvi, his musical French impeccable, leads CSO in stylish ‘Symphonie fantastique’

Mar 10, 2022 – 11:11 am
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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.

Master of the moment: Pianist Trifonov shows why he may be the best among world’s best

Mar 7, 2022 – 6:51 pm
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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.

When octogenarians Muti and Glass met, vibe at Orchestra Hall rang with renewal of youth

Mar 4, 2022 – 2:46 pm
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Perspective: It has been a brutally challenging concert season, but on that cold night of Feb. 18, the Windy City got its classical groove back. The house rocked to its feet as 85-year-old Philip Glass, the composer that people still like to call “a minimalist,” stepped onto the stage with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 80-year-old music director Riccardo Muti to take repeated bows for Glass’ Eleventh Symphony, written in 2016. Nights at Orchestra Hall have rarely felt so young.

Going for Baroque from opposite directions: Different worlds echoed in CSO, Apollo’s Fire

Feb 5, 2022 – 1:21 pm
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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.

Muti ladles some whipped cream Vienna-style at ‘New Year’ concert for CSO’s hardy faithful

Jan 21, 2022 – 5:59 pm
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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.

Asia tour scratched, Muti and CSO turn their light on Beethoven to start bonus run at home

Jan 17, 2022 – 11:49 am
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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.

CSO kicks off New Year with refreshing fare: Gershwin, Ravel and dazzling pianist Barnatan

Jan 8, 2022 – 1:32 pm
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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.

Dale Clevenger dies at 81; French horn master was Chicago Symphony principal for 47 years

Jan 7, 2022 – 7:01 pm
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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.

After curious series of conductors, McGegan’s ‘Messiah’ lifted CSO into New Year. Hallelujah. 

Jan 4, 2022 – 10:30 pm
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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.

CSO brass measure up to golden reputation with sonorous fare capped by blazing Mahler

Dec 16, 2021 – 6:47 pm
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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.

Music of Baroque ‘Messiah’: Surprise stardom for the band, with mezzo-soprano as superstar

Dec 3, 2021 – 5:43 pm
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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.

Portrait for violin and piano: Astor Piazzolla’s lifelong musical arc from Bach to Grand Tango

Dec 1, 2021 – 4:39 pm
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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.

Scaling ‘Messiah’ back to its Baroque origins, Bella Voce frames oratorio with style, clarity

Nov 23, 2021 – 11:45 am
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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.

‘Florencia en el Amazonas’ at Lyric Opera: Magic of a jungle river runs aground as drama

Nov 15, 2021 – 10:17 pm
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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. ★★★

Lyric brings fresh magic to Mozart’s ‘Flute’ with silent film look and, yes, pink elephants

Nov 11, 2021 – 11:44 am
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Review: For the third time this fall, Lyric Opera of Chicago has given its audience a production to talk about. Currently on the boards is “The Magic Flute” in a now famously brash production that plays out against the facade of a great wall that acts like a silent movie screen, the camera’s flickering white light and all. Little windows and ledges in the wall pop open to allow singers to lean or step out and sing as they interact with fanciful cartoons of giant bugs, fairies, skeletons, even pink elephants – oh, my! ★★★★

Brilliance times two: Violin-piano recital casts light into dark and turbulent places of the soul

Nov 8, 2021 – 6:08 pm
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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.

CSO, blazing through autumn, revels in Mozart with quiet, old-school maestro Marek Janowski

Nov 7, 2021 – 1:23 pm
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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.

Honeck, adding to triumphant string with CSO, casts a radiant light on Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’

Oct 30, 2021 – 4:44 pm
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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.

James Conlon, remembering Bernard Haitink, leads CSO concert of solemnity and brilliance

Oct 24, 2021 – 6:29 pm
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Review: In a concert that turned out to be a memorial to the eminent conductor Bernard Haitink (1929-2021), who was long and closely associated with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, James Conlon led Shostakovich’s somber Chamber Symphony, an arrangement of his Eighth String Quartet. The effect was wrenchingly beautiful, the experience cathartic, a fitting remembrance of Haitink, who had led his CSO colleagues at Orchestra Hall, at Ravinia, and throughout Europe and Asia on tour.

Chicago Symphony, out of the pandemic gate, shines with the season’s first guest conductor

Oct 16, 2021 – 9:45 am
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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.