Articles in Classical + Opera
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: 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! ★★★★
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.
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.
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.
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.
Review: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s audience is likely to find the deferred announcement of the CSO’s winter-spring portion of the 2021-22 season has been worth the wait. The newly revealed line-up is replete with favorite artists and major events — foremost, no doubt, music director Riccardo Muti leading four performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and, at season’s end, Verdi’s full-length opera “Un ballo in maschera.”
Review: It was a prodigious event, pianist Lang Lang’s 93-minute non-stop excursion through Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations before a packed on Oct. 8 at Orchestra Hall. In a blazing display of virtuosity, the celebrated pianist powered through every technical obstacle on a winding course laden with them. All that said, this staggering exhibition had little to do with Bach as a composer of the early 18th century. What unfolded here was a rigorously considered perspective on Bach as viewed through the filter of Liszt.
Review: Of all the composers-in-residence appointed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during music director Riccardo Muti’s tenure, Mazzoli is the one whose interests are most in sync with his. She has several successful operas and lyric works under her belt already. Muti led Mazzoli’s intense yet dreamlike “These Worlds in Us” on Oct. 8 at Orchestra Hall. Her tenure as CSO composer in residence, disrupted by Covid, had ended June 30.
Review: Conductor Riccardo Muti’s brilliant take on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony capped an Oct. 1 concert by the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall that commenced on formidable and indeed glorious terms with Brahms’ Violin Concerto, featuring Leonidas Kavakos as soloist.
Review: It was at once bizarre and exhilarating to be back at Orchestra Hall with a masked throng seated elbow-to-elbow. Yet the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s glistening, soaring, pin-perfect performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat (“Eroica”) with music director Riccardo Muti on Sept. 23 lent the occasion a marvelous normalcy. This is what had been absent from life for more than a year and a half. This familiar musical brilliance and wordless eloquence. This profound spirituality.
Review: In his operatic retelling of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Verdi went straight to heart of the tale’s dark and brilliant confusion, its chiaroscuro, and it resonates with bleak authenticity in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s return to the stage. The potent new production of “Macbeth,” devised by David McVicar, was led by Enrique Mazzola in his first flourish as Lyric’s music director. ★★★★★
Review: The gypsy femme-fatale Carmen of Georges Bizet’s opera is more than figuratively a force of nature: She’s an authentic creature of the natural world where life, as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed, is “nasty, brutish and short.” The truth of that hard reality came to mind as I watched Chicago Opera Theater’s concert distillation of “Carmen,” a novel experience that might be described as weird, intriguing and notably short. ★★★
Review: It was a musical setting of the Mass like no other, sung by a single vocalist like no other. And as a musical, indeed quite theatrical, experience, Davóne Tines’ mesmerizing performance of his Recital No. 1: Mass, on Aug. 31 with pianist Adam Nielsen at the Ravinia Festival, was unlike any other in memory.
Report: Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has canceled his scheduled two-week October residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor. The 76-year-old conductor and music director laureate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was to lead CSO concerts at Orchestra Hall Oct. 21-23 and Oct. 28-30. A statement from Tilson Thomas’ national press agent said: “After a series of tests, Michael Tilson Thomas was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required an immediate operation. The operation at the UCSF Medical Center was successful.”
Report: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has issued a proclamation recognizing July 28, 2021, as “Riccardo Muti Day” in the city of Chicago, in honor of “an extraordinary man” on the occasion of his 80th birthday. “I could not be more proud to join his family, friends, colleagues, and fans in commemorating this occasion,” stated Mayor Lightfoot, while noting Muti’s multiple Grammy Awards with the CSO and his work to bring music to all Chicagoans including seniors, veterans, students and incarcerated youths.
Review: Can something that’s free qualify as a bargain? In the case of the Grant Park Music Festival, which is free all summer to the legion of picnickers who flood the sprawling green beyond Pritzker Pavilion, those serenades sometimes exceed the pedestrian notion of bargain. Sometimes the occasion is more like an opportunity beyond price. Witness conductor Eun Sun Kim’s thrilling, indeed mind-altering and game-changing account of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony with the Grant Park Festival Orchestra on July 23.
Report: Brick by reconstructive brick, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s emergence from its long pandemic null into new and full vigor is taking form. A newly released second wave of concert dates, extending into the first weekend of 2022, provides healthy signs of a recognizable season, not only for the orchestras but also for the chamber music, recitals and jazz performances that keep the stage lights burning at Symphony Center.
Review: To judge by the exhilaration that swept through Millennium Park on July 2, when the 2021 Grant Park Music Festival officially opened, the beloved “William Tell” Overture of Rossini, which is up this week, should carry an extra special zing. The Grant Park Music Festival is back: the music, the collective great times, Chicago and life itself. The Lone Ranger rides again, indeed.
Review: The North Shore Chamber Music Festival has always flown a little under the radar. The summer event, held June 9-12, might not have the big profile or multi-week seasons of larger counterparts like the Ravinia Festival, but it delivers the same kind of high-quality music-making and is beloved by fans who fill its seats each year. The two star-caliber founders, violinist Vadim Gluzman and his wife, pianist Angela Yoffe, headed a world-class cast in this year’s 10th-anniversary edition.
Report: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at full strength and with music director Riccardo Muti back on the podium, returns to Orchestra Hall on Sept. 23 to launch its 2021-22 season, an embrace of normalcy announced by the orchestra just days after the completion of a pandemic-constrained “season” reduced to just three weeks. Residual effects of the pandemic still resonated in the CSO’s limited new-season announcement, which offered complete details only for Muti’s opening three-week residency.
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.
Review: The second concert program of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s three-week, toe-in-the-water post-pandemic “season” almost took one back to that halcyon time before elbow-bumps replaced hand-shakes. The concert’s final flourish felt and sounded like the once-and-future CSO: a rousing, conspicuously virtuosic performance of Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta” that even gave the impression of a stage filled with musicians.
Review: It was like music’s great beating heart could not ultimately be stilled, this ferocious burst of timpani and bass drum followed by a stentorian peal of brasses. When had the proclamation of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” ever carried a more exhilarating message? The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, music itself, had returned to Orchestra Hall.
Preview: As Lyric Opera of Chicago moves toward that moment opera buffs in Chicagoland have long awaited, the post-pandemic opening of a new season Sept. 17, the company’s music director-designate, Enrique Mazzola, gives the impression of an artist well ahead of the curve. Speaking about Lyric’s new production of Verdi’s early “Macbeth,” which will bring live opera back to Chicago, the Spanish-born Italian conductor sounds like he’s already there.
Interview: Under the pandemic’s abiding if perhaps fading shadow, Lyric Opera of Chicago has fashioned a virtual salute to its exiting music director, Andrew Davis. With some very fine singers as well as the Lyric chorus, Davis led an ambitious video in his honor that debuts May 16. In a chat with Chicago On the Aisle, the maestro reflected on his two decades at the company’s artistic helm.
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.
Preview: Conductor Enrique Mazzola, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new music director-designate, presides at the piano over a selection of rare love songs by famous Italian composers, sung by the young professionals in training at Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center. Titled “Sole e Amore” – Sun and Love – the free program streams at 6 p.m. Feb. 21.