Articles in Classical + Opera
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.
Review: The North Shore Chamber Music Festival is the Chicago-area classical scene’s best-kept secret. Anything but a run-of-the-mill suburban musical offering, it offers the kind of top-level talent typically heard downtown or in other major music centers. How is this possible in Northbrook? Thank local residents Vadim Gluzman, an internationally known violin soloist, and his wife, pianist Angela Yoffe, who founded the festival in 2011.
Preview: It’s a big-numbered year for the Grant Park Music Festival, which opens June 12 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Not only does 2019 mark the free festival’s 85th anniversary, but it’s also the 15th summer for the Pritzker Pavilion and the 20th season at the festival helm for conductor Carlos Kalmar. Not surprisingly, Kalmar wanted to do grand things. The result measures up. The word for this celebratory season is Big.
Review: Australian native Simone Young was the first woman to be appointed resident conductor of Opera Australia (1986), first to conduct the Vienna State Opera (1993) and the Vienna Philharmonic (2005) – as well as the first female conductor to record a complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies (2012) and a complete Wagner “Ring” cycle (2016). Her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on June 6 at Orchestra Hall left a mixed impression.
Review: Spirits were high and the audience could hardly have been more receptive when singers from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center for professional training collaborated with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago in an evening of opera arias and scenes June 5 at Orchestra Hall. The concert conducted by Michael Christie sampled a nicely varied mix of four operas from the 18th-20th centuries.
Review: With exquisite music and lovely dancers, the idea of engaging in some cross-cultural pollination between the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Joffrey Ballet made perfect sense. But without an ideal dance floor, theatrical lighting or entrance-exit options, the Symphony Center experiment, which included the world premiere of Stephanie Martinez’s “Bliss!” set to music of Stravinsky, didn’t quite work.
Review: The piano was at center stage, and all seemed right with the world in the happy, normal – actually, quite thrilling – aftermath of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s protracted strike. Many an anticipated concert got wiped out by the strike, but the timing favored two pianists who happen to be favorites at Orchestra Hall: Mitsuko Uchida, who gave a memorable performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with the CSO under Riccardo Muti (May 9-11), and Evgeny Kissin, who offered a typically thoughtful, brilliant and roaringly received recital May 12.
Review: By now, Lyric Opera of Chicago can claim an impressive string of spring musicals, hugely popular explorations of classic Americana that appear like shining exclamation marks at the end of regular opera seasons. The latest, “West Side Story,” well may be the finest. Indeed, you might be hard pressed ever to find a more profoundly satisfying account of this exquisite music-drama, which shares with its model, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” both its bittersweet hope and its timeless tragedy. ★★★★★
Review: O say, can you see – the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is back, its seven-week strike over, music on the stands and music director Riccardo Muti once more presiding from the podium. To a whooping, standing-O reception, the CSO roared back into action at Orchestra Hall on May 2 with a performance that made clear the orchestra, in a twinkling, was all the way back: a full-fledged do-over. And lest anyone miss the point that, even at the three-quarter mark of the season, this was in spirit a restart, Muti began with a flick of his baton for a drumroll and struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
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. ★★★★
Report: The striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra voted April 27 to approve a new five-year contract that compromises on pensions and projects wage increases totaling 13.25 percent. The agreement was reached April 26, the day Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped into a contentious dispute between the musicians and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association that had led to the strike March 11. Under the new agreement, the pension plan will be frozen after the 2022-23 season and transition thereafter to a model that shifts the future investment burden to the musicians themselves. Unanimous approval by the musicians came hours before the Association board of trustees also voted to approve the contract.
Review: To conclude a whirlwind season of grand-scale narrative works that included Christopher Wheeldon’s Degas-inspired riff on “Swan Lake” and his Chicago World’s Fair-driven take on “The Nutcracker,” as well as the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s cinematic version of “Anna Karenina,” the Joffrey Ballet’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater, decided to shift gears in a most intriguing way. The result is “Across the Pond,” the umbrella title for a fascinating mixed bill showcasing three contemporary British choreographers,
Commentary: The strike by musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, now entering its second month, has brought into focus some realities about high-level orchestras in our time, the nature of work stoppages such as this one and the framework of negotiations between musicians and management. Perhaps the first point to be made is the inappropriateness of outsiders to presume to judge how an impasse in negotiations should be resolved.
Review: Musically, the French Renaissance was a bountiful era that surely would never be forgotten. Yet curiously and regrettably, says the celebrated lute virtuoso and Renaissance expert Paul O’Dette, the music of 16th-century France has pretty much tumbled into oblivion. Which only makes the more alluring O’Dette’s appearance April 5-7 with the Newberry Consort for a program devoted to – what else? — la musique française à l’époque de la Renaissance.
April 3 Update: The musicians of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra had expected to play Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony on March 26 at Orchestra Hall. Instead, with the Chicago Symphony on strike, the visiting musicians took to the streets — one could almost say the barricades — in solidarity with their Chicago colleagues. Brass players from the two orchestras played briefly on the sidewalk in front of Orchestra Hall amid signs proclaiming their unity.
Review: Her colleagues sang tributes, the next generation of opera stars chipped in with the exuberance of youth and the audience rocked the house on soprano Renée Fleming’s night – a very vocal celebration of that superstar’s multifaceted 25-year association with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The concert March 23 at the Lyric Opera House acknowledged the many ways the singer has contributed to the company as vocal star, consultant and mentor over the last quarter-century.
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.
Preview: Megastar soprano Renée Fleming, affectionately known in the opera world as “the diva next door,” remembers very well her debut 25 years ago at Lyric Opera of Chicago in the title role of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.” But that event is only the touchstone of Lyric’s glittering 25th anniversary concert March 23, which really celebrates a quarter-century of close partnership between the opera company and Fleming as singer, consultant and mentor.
Updated March 20: The striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will give two free performances they have dubbed “From the Heart of the Orchestra – Free Concerts for Chicago.” The two programs, announced as the first events in a projected series of free presentations, will feature a small ensemble playing chamber music March 22 and the full orchestra in works by Beethoven and Mozart on March 25. The musicians also made public letters of support from former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim and Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Review: Spring – and the warmer, more healthful weather it augurs – can’t come too soon for Lyric Opera of Chicago. As of this writing, two title-role singers are indisposed. At least one of them, soprano Albina Shagimuratova, made it through opening night as Violetta in Verdi’s “La traviata.” But the second star to withdraw, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, wasn’t even up for the March 2 opening of Handel’s “Ariodante.” Julie Anne Miller was pressed into service on opening night as Ariodante, a huge “trouser” role aglitter with coloratura fireworks but also touched by music of profound reflection. Miller proved to be more and more impressive as the night wore on. ★★★★
Review: I confess I knew nothing about the 26-year-old Italian pianist Beatrice Rana before she made a phenomenal Symphony Center debut on Feb. 24. What initially lured me to her program was her choice of repertoire, including Chopin’s Etudes, Op. 25, and Ravel’s “Mirroirs.” In both her technical and interpretive skill, Rana proved to be extraordinary artist – one who held the audience at rapt attention.
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: Brotherly conflict is at the heart of composer Stefan Weisman’s extraordinary operatic adaptation of “The Scarlet Ibis,” a celebrated short story by James Hurst. The 95-minute opera reveals layers of meaning and symbolism and blurs intense naturalism with a kind of dreamy magical realism. The staging by Chicago Opera Theater manages to be at once touching and tender, tough and unflinching: a revelation of the work’s power and depth. ★★★★★
Review: Every opera that gains such enduring popularity as to acquire the epithet warhorse was once, well, a colt – exhilarating in its spunky freshness, its beauty undimmed by long familiarity and habitual service. The real marvel of Lyric Opera’s current staging of Verdi’s “La traviata” lies not just in its lustrous surfaces but rather in its surprising depth, in its true and affecting recovery of a splendor beyond – or, more to the point, before – habit. ★★★★★
Review: The Joffrey Ballet’s world premiere production of “Anna Karenina” is astonishing and thrilling on so many levels, from its concise distillation of Tolstoy’s prodigious novel, choreography that captures the story’s tragic essence and inspired multimedia effects to a superlative musical score. But this remarkable achievement is first and foremost tremendous theater. ★★★★★
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.
Interview: By this point in soprano Nina Stemme’s operatic journey, the high-intensity role of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” has emerged as a signature piece. Indeed, the Swedish singer and reigning Wagnerian soprano, who currently performs the distraught and vengeful Elektra in her debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, all but owns the part. She is the foremost Elektra in the world today, and she embraces the staggeringly difficult role as “the greatest joy” to sing.
Review: The great power of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” lies in the transmogrification of a timeless tragedy through harrowing vocal music reinforced by an orchestral score so vivid, so nearly verbal, that it might stand alone as a symphonic drama. The magnificence of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current production resides in the depth of its humanity – that depth sounded by tremendous vocal performances and orchestral playing, under Donald Runnicles, that is absolutely graphic. ★★★★
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.