My first 2013-2014 Lyric Opera of Chicago Sun-Times review received an interesting reply from Sun-Times news and feature columnist Neil Steinberg on his weblog Every goddamn day. Neil is an adult-onset opera enthusiast who regularly and successfully introduces his readers (and his sons) to productions, takes them backstage, and literally takes them to the Opera House once a year when he draws the names of 50 couples to be Lyric's and his guests for a performance. Was I too much of a connoisseur in my review? Neil wondered. Did I "know too much" to appreciate the evening? Fir his part, did Neil enjoy the presentation as much as he did because "ignorance is bliss"? Neil's web essay then drew a response from me and comments from his readers as well as from New Yorker music critic Alex Ross and Bay Area classical music weblogger Lisa Hircsh.
A number of commenters both at Neil's site and on his and my facebook page noted how refreshing it was to have some back and forth about a review, the nature of criticism, and the different types of appreciation, and to have all of that discussed in a civil and respectful -- but not dry and dull -- way.
My full inital review (with a trim on aspects of the set design restored) is below. Neil's November 23 web entry is here. Signed comments still welcomed.
Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Lyric Opera’s ‘La traviata’ fails to impress
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “La traviata” stars Marina Rebeka in the title role. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013
By ANDREW PATNER
Through December 20
Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive
Tickets : $34 to $229
Info: (312) 332-2244; lyricopera.org
While some may think of a night at the opera as an abstract means of escape, the art form and its presentation exist very much in time and space.
An audience brings memories of other casts and productions, often in the same opera house. The ability now to access recordings from almost any period or place throws on more layers of experience. Other symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles can make a city or festival a bazaar of comparisons and contrasts.
In almost all of these regards, the latest production of Verdi’s La traviata by Lyric Opera of Chicago -- the 14th in the nearly 60 years of Lyric’s history -- has a hard time making its case for a remounting. Chicago audiences now see themselves as spoiled by having a steady stream of Verdi at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s greatest living interpreter, music director Riccardo Muti. But what they actually have become is educated.
One would have thought that Italian conductor Massimo Zanetti’s scattershot and unconvincing approach to Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Civic Opera House two seasons ago would have been enough to persuade local leadership to look elsewhere for direction of such canonical works. But here we are again with constant and unnecessary racing, tweaking, arbitrary accents and ritards, none from the score and none adding anything to Verdi’s work. Balances with the singers were a bit better than in the orchestrally overpowering, uncoordinated Lucia. But after Muti’s Macbeth, Otello, and frequent Requiems with the CSO here, why do we need to hear the second- or third-rate at a house of Lyric’s level and importance?
Casting, too, is problematic. Lyric has tapped the Baltics for a physically winning soprano, Latvian Marina Rebeka. But after Violetta’s Act 1 half-hour mini-opera, the wan singer just does not have the voice for the next two highly demanding acts. She is even almost inaudible in the famed letter-reading introduction to the Act 3 signature, “Addio del passato,” normally a chance for acting chops to make up for any limitations as a singer.
Quinn Kelsey, the Hawaiian baritone and Ryan Center alumnus who is a local favorite -- and a favorite of mine, too -- also fails to stake his claim on the elder Germont, the father of Violetta’s lover, who demands that the courtesan abandon his son thus sending the opera on its tragic way. While Kelsey becomes more well-rounded in the Act 2 “Di Provenza il mar,” he is generally hulking, skulking. and one-dimensional in both his singing and in his acting.
As Alfredo Germont, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja comes off best here vocally, though he falls a bit short of the stronger impression he made in last season’s La bohème. Not much of an actor, his warm, wonderfully old-fashioned tight vibrato must come across as honeyed balm on a radio broadcast. I look forward to hearing one.
First-time Lyric stage director Arin Arbus seems to have little to say about the opera itself or its three characters. They stand, they sing, they walk across or around the stage. But she does get the chorus scenes and dance set piece right. Perhaps as a young New York artist she knows that real decadence has a strong creative quality, and she gives us wonderfully lush and detailed party scenes. The production is aided by costume and (giant, brilliant) puppet designer Cait O’Connor’s creations, Sarah Hatten’s wigs and makeup, Austin McCormick’s appropriately lurid choreography, and Michael Black’s expert Lyric Chorus. (Not much is added by sets and lighting of Riccardo Hernandez and Marcus Doshi, respectively, although shadow plays before each act intrigue but are not followed up on.)
Arbus also gives us -- semi-spoiler alert -- a clever death scene with Violetta literally in Alfredo’s arms. But the operative word after three hours (including two intermissions) remains “Why?”
(A very attractive and useful 24-page pullout section is in today's/Thursday's hard copy/print edition with theatre, dance, art, movies, pop music, and television sections by other Sun-Times writers. Special thanks: Mr Darel Jevens.)
Fall preview: Classical Music and Opera
BY ANDREW PATNER
The classical scene in Chicago continues to boom, from Orchestra Hall and the Civic Opera House to storefronts and lofts. Opera and long-missed vocal recitals are prominent this fall, in part because of big birthday anniversaries for influential composers: 200 for Italian Giuseppe Verdi and German Richard Wagner and a century for Briton Benjamin Britten.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director is the world’s leading champion of Giuseppe Verdi, and he’s arranged his schedule to commemorate the Italian master’s 200th birthday right here in Chicago. Verdi programs fill Muti’s first month here and launch the season, starting in with the 2013 free community concert, this year in Cicero (!) on Sept. 18, and including three subscription weeks at Orchestra Hall, the Symphony Ball gala Sept. 21, concert performances of the complete opera Macbeth (Sept. 28 through Oct. 6) and the Verdi Requiem on the composer’s actual 200th, Oct. 10. This last, sold-out concert also will be shown live (and free) on a giant screen in Millennium Park and over a free international webcast at cso.org. Orchestra Hall, 220 South Michigan Avenue. (312) 294-3000.
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Lyric also launches its season with Verdian Shakespeare, his popular, late Otello, although with a lesser-known and locally débuting conductor, the youngish Frenchman Bertrand de Billy. Stentorian tenor Johan Botha, charming soprano Ana María Martínez, and appropriately creepy bass-baritone Falk Struckmann lead the cast of this Peter Hall production revival. The opening-night Opera Ball gala performance on Oct. 5 will be broadcast live on WFMT-FM (98.7) and wfmt.com. Otello runs through Nov. 2. Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. (312) 332-2244; lyricopera.org.
Chicago Opera Theater
COT rounds out its calendar 2013 season with . . . another Verdi, although neither Shakespeare-based nor well-known, only his seventh (of some 30) stage works, Joan of Arc. In keeping with its “more of the different” concept, COT has experimental director David Schweizer making his Chicago début with a highly theatrical, intermissionless staging led by young local conductor Francesco Milioto and young singers. Sept. 21-29. Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph Drive. (312) 704-8414; chicagooperatheater.org.
Haymarket Opera Company
This rapidly established company focuses on the 17th and 18th centuries, so no Verdi for them. But they do get the fall’s only Chicago prémière: Georg Philipp Telemann’s 1725 comic opera, in Italian, Pimpinone, or The Bossy Chambermaid. With just two singers and period-style instruments, sets, and costumes, the Rogers Park-based enterprise continues to explore the unexpected. Oct. 26-27, Mayne Stage, 1328 West Morse. (773) 381-4551. haymarketopera.org.
Enough of all this vocal stuff, you say? Another of the world’s greatest conductors and the much-loved former interim leader of the CSO, Bernard Haitink, 84, is slated to return to Orchestra Hall with Mozart’s last piano concerto (No. 27 in B-Flat Major, K. 595) and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, the “Romantic.” The ever-reliable Emanuel Ax is the soloist, and there is not a singer in sight. Oct. 31-Nov. 3. Orchestra Hall. (312) 294-3000; cso.org.
Conductor Valery Gergiev makes headlines these days as much for his championing of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin as for his energetic presentations of the Russian classics. Gergiev brings his Mariinsky Orchestra from St. Petersburg to Orchestra Hall to perform Igor Stravinsky’s three great Russian ballet scores -- The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring -- on a single program. Oct. 2. (312) 294-3000; cso.org.
Back to the vocals: Young New York-based tenor Nicholas Phan has a busy Chicago fall in connection with the centenary anniversary of British composer Benjamin Britten. He just sang Britten with the Knights at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre, and he kicks off his own Collaborative Works Festival Sept. 11 with a free all-Britten song program at the Poetry Foundation, a shared program with soprano Kiera Duffy and eighth blackbird at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center Sept. 15, and a Britten/Schubert program at the U of C Presents/Mandel Hall Oct. 18. (773) 702-8068; chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.
Speaking of festivals, the enterprising young Chicago pianist George LePauw launches his third International Beethoven Project Festival this year with a streamlined but still very busy schedule and a more easily navigable downtown base. Impressive guests include composer/conductor Matthias Pintscher, Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, JACK Quartet, Chicago-raised rising star cellist Gabriel Cabezas, and pianist and From the Top host Christopher O’Riley and bar-touring cellist Matt Haimowitz playing everything from Beethoven to Radiohead. Sept 7-15. Merit School of Music, 38 South Peoria Street, and Chicago Temple, 77 West Washington Street. (312) 772-5821; internationalbeethovenproject.com.
South Shore Opera Company
The intrepid company will mark its fifth anniversary with the Chicago prémière of African-American composer William Grant Still’s 1939 collaboration with poet Langston Hughes, Troubled Island, based on early 19th-century Haitian Revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Premiered at New York City Opera in 1949 as the first work by a black composer produced by a major American opera company, the work largely disappeared after its controversial prémière. Leslie B. Dunner conducts. Oct. 19. South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 South South Shore Drive. (773) 723-4627; southshoreopera.org.
Music of the Baroque
No anniversary is needed to hear the music of the immortal J.S. Bach. Chicago’s popular Music of the Baroque kicks its season off with two cantatas and the Magnificat of the Leipzig master. Last year’s MoB performances of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt were highlights of the season. Principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer leads the chorus, orchestra, and vocal soloists at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, and at the Harris Theater. Oct. 6-7. (312) 551-1414; baroque.org.
And several more not to miss:
Fray makes concerto début, Bartók shines, Bates shares a first draft
Conductor Jaap van Zweden and composer Mason Bates with the CSO Thursday night. Todd Rosenberg Photography/CSO
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
♦ 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday June 4
♦ Orchestra Hall, 220 South Michigan Avenue
♦ Tickets, $10-$212
♦ (312) 294-3000, cso.org
BY ANDREW PATNER
After a month of concerts with novices and lesser names as conductors, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had a serious figure on the podium Thursday night: Jaap van Zweden, music director of the Dallas Symphony and Hong Kong Philharmonic orchestras.
Making a breathtaking last-minute sub debut 4½ years ago, van Zweden has gone from dependable pinch-hitter to principal guest conductor in all but name with a full festival of politically related music here next spring. Although I had some concerns with some of his recent performances, Thursday night was all about nuance, lyricism, support, and depth. The Dutch-born conductor and former Amsterdam Concertgebouw concertmaster is a great asset to the larger CSO family.
He first demonstrated this Thursday by providing wholly sympathetic accompaniment to David Fray’s CSO début as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466. The young Frenchman, who turned 32 last week, has a serious, even brooding, side to his playing that some might have found too dark and structural for this work, especially in the usually more lyrical slow movement. Beethoven himself, though, held this 1785 concerto uniquely dear and did so for a reason. This was a strong Beethovenian interpretation combined with both the lucidity and tone of the French style.
Sitting in a straight back chair and crossing his arms when not playing, Fray underscored his often muscular conception by using perhaps the two most fiery cadenzas written for the soloist, an amalgam based on Austrian Paul Badura-Skoda’s in the opening Allegro and the dramatic intervention of Swiss giant Edwin Fischer (Daniel Barenboim’s teacher) in the closing Rondo. Where his compatriot Jean-Yves Thibaudet, last week’s brilliant CSO soloist, prefers colorful works, elegantly played, Fray offers more analytical investigations of challenging repertoire. His is a career to keep watching.
The CSO has owned Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra since the late 1940s, when a succession of great Budapest refugee conductors who knew the composer -- George Szell, Fritz Reiner, and Georg Solti -- started giving important performances of this core 1943 masterwork. Pierre Boulez offered his own decidedly non-Hungarian take in concerts and a recording here in the 1990s. Van Zweden showed his real chops in the Bartók by starting with a clean, notes-on-the-page, slate, reminding us what a beautiful piece this is, as well as a powerful one. He added several minutes to its normal length without ever weighing anything down and opened up the infamous satirical attack on Shostakovich in the “interrupted intermezzo” in a whole new comic, and warm, way.
Wind principals, the harp duo, the especially muted trumpet pair, and hard-stick timpani were especially responsive collaborators. Jonathan Gunn, acting principal clarinet in Cincinnati and husband of superb CSO piccolo Jennifer Gunn, was sitting in the chair that will be empty for at least a year, when, for family reasons, principal Stephen Williamson will give the New York Philharmonic a try. Gunn would appear to be an excellent candidate for major works next season.
Ostensibly following water through four obvious movements and sets of recorded sounds, the piece is not at the top of the Bates catalog and left little impression. Van Zweden kept the acoustic instruments going with care and click-track efficiency. One is more hopeful about a brand-new Bates work, Difficult Bamboo, for chamber ensemble and percussion, that will have its world première Monday night in a MusicNow concert at the Harris Theater.
Nmon Ford sings the title role of Ernest Bloch's Macbeth, which Chicago Opera Theater will stage as part of its 2014 season. | Photo: Long Beach Opera
Orff, Ullmann, and a rare 'Macbeth' (by Bloch)
BY ANDREW PATNER
Eclectic. Theatrical. Unusual. 20th century.
In announcing its 2014 season, Chicago Opera Theater continues to move in different directions from its recent past while building on its strong bond with its general director’s Southern California company.
At the company’s annual gala Thursday night, Andreas Mitisek, who also heads the Long Beach (Calif.) Opera, announced the second COT season under his watch and the first planned fully by him.
As he did this year with a Piazzolla tango work, Mitisek stretches the definition of opera with the Chicago première of Duke Ellington’s Queenie Pie, which will launch the season February 15 to 23. For 12 years until his death in 1974, Ellington worked on, but never completed, this musical setting of the life of the first Black self-made millionaire, the hair-products pioneer Madam C. J. Walker.
COT will perform a 2009 version created for the University of Texas at Austin by the composer’s longtime collaborator, Betty McGettigan (who also wrote the work’s libretto). Ellington called this light piece, intended for public television, an opéra comique, and others have compared it to ’20s-era orchestral jazz. COT will collaborate with Jeff Lindberg’s Chicago Jazz Orchestra on the production, which will later travel to Long Beach.
Spring brings a contrasting double bill of one-act German works from 1943: Carl Orff’s Die Kluge (“The Clever One”) and Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis (“The Emperor of Atlantis”). The Bavarian Orff (1895-1982), best known for his 1937 profane cantata Carmina Burana, prospered during and after the Nazi period; his innocently satirical fairy tale opera, adapted from the Brothers Grimm, received productions in 21 theaters under the Nazis.
Ullmann, an assimilated Czech Jew, wrote his biting send-up of the Nazis in the Theresienstadt “model” concentration camp. In 1944, he was mudered at Auschwitz and never saw his opera produced. In 1998, COT presented the Chicago première of the Ullmann work for the company’s 25th anniversary season. This spring bill will be staged May 31 to June 8, 2014, at the Merle Reskin Theatre of DePaul University, 60 East Balbo Drive, instead of the COT’s usual base at the Harris Theater.
Fall brings another work with a complicated history, Swiss-American refugee Ernest Bloch’s 1904-06 Macbeth in its Chicago première, September 13 to 21, 2014, at the Harris. Bloch (1880-1959) remains largely known for such Jewish-influenced works as the 1915 Schelomo, written for 'cello and orchestra. His only completed opera ran up against hard political times in Europe after its première in 1910, and the English-language libretto the composer preferred was not presented on the Continent until 2003 in Vienna. COT promises “a new production based on” the version that will go up at Long Beach next month.
COT’s current season continues with Verdi’s rarely performed Joan of Arc, September 21 to 29 at the Harris.
Mitisek will conduct Macbeth and the spring double-bill. Casts and production teams will be announced later. Full 2014 season subscriptions starting at $95 go on sale July 1, with individual tickets on January 6, 2014.
'Beyond the Score' takes up Rimsky's 'Sheherazade'
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
♦ 8 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, and “Beyond the Score,” 3 p.m. Sunday
♦ Pre-concert presentation by lecturer Barbara Wright-Pryor and tenor Henry Pleas Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
♦ Orchestra Hall, 220 South Michigan Avenue
♦ Tickets, $10-$215; “BTS,” $10-$142
BY ANDREW PATNER
In the weeks between music director Riccardo Muti’s April and June residencies, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has engaged four lower-tier conductors and one tested regular guest, Jaap van Zweden.
To say that a conductor is of a lower tier than a CSO music director is not an insult, it’s a description. There are only a small number of great orchestra leaders at any given time. Conductors of various levels and abilities play crucial roles in heading orchestras of various abilities, sizes, and needs. Building young artists, bringing enthusiasm to communities, experimenting with programs are all necessary and important tasks in the larger musical ecosystem. But genuine accomplishment in these areas does not automatically make one an authority with the CSO or the Berlin Philharmonic.
Taiwan-born conductor Mei-Ann Chen has been a terrific match as music director for the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. She has upped the ante for both ensembles, connected strongly with audiences, and scoured the world for new and neglected scores. Several efforts have come together for the centerpiece of her CSO subscription-concert début Thursday at Orchestra Hall, The Mississippi River by Florence Price, which also kicks off a set of “Rivers”-themed concerts this spring.
The Arkansas-born Price (above), a graduate of Boston’s New England Conservatory and the first Black woman to be widely recognized as a symphonic composer, made Chicago her home from 1927 until her death at 66 in 1953. Frederick Stock premiered her first symphony with the CSO at the Auditorium in 1933 as a part of the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Her suite, a kind of tone poem about life and music along the great river, unusually running from Minnesota downward to the cradle of spirituals and blues in the South, was written the next year but has received professional performances and a recording only recently. This week marks its première CSO performances.
If Price could have had more performances and feedback in her lifetime, surely the piece could have been sharpened and perhaps tightened from its 30-minute length. An opening brass chorale, Native American sounds and rhythms as the journey moves past Iowa, and an unusual tiering of spirituals and popular river songs toward the end of the suite are quite attractive and individual. But many of the spirituals excerpts are repeated too often, and transitions are not as convincing as they might be. (Robert G. Hasty will lead Price’s First Symphony with the Northwestern University Chamber Orchestra at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston on June 6.) Strong pre-concert performances by local tenor Henry Pleas and pianist Charles Hayes of Price song settings also point to the need to hear more of her large catalog more regularly.
There was little for Chen to do with Mendelssohn’s rarely played 1833 The Fair Melusina overture, itself practically a repetitive 10-minute loop. Her athletic and at times over-eager, ahead-of-the-beat direction of Rimsky-Korsakov’s much-loved 1888 symphonic suite Sheherazade did not do much for this 50-minute work of “Oriental” perfumes, tales, and mysteries.
Nor did it hinder it, though, as this is a work the CSO plays like no other ensemble. From full-throated themes to the many characteristic solos, these players own this piece. Concertmaster Robert Chen and his violin were the instrumental incarnation of the eponymous narrator, and the four principals of the wind section were four princes of bassoon, clarinet, oboe, and flute with principal cello and harp also beautifully floating melodies and invented scales.
Friday afternoon saw the Rimsky taken apart and reassembled over an hour in a very successful installment of Gerard McBurney’s Beyond the Score series. Actor Roger Mueller portrayed the composer, Sandra Delgado was Sheherazade herself (in the full five-syllable pronunciation) before beautiful animated scenes by Hillary Leben with galantry shadow cutouts by English sculptor Tim Millar.
As Chen and the full orchestra gave excerpts not only from Rimsky’s work but by those who influenced him such as Balakirev, Borodin, and Mussorgsky, Mueller shared the composer’s youth as a naval cadet with a voyage in the mid-19th century that took him as far away from Russia as Manhattan and Brazil, opening his eyes to the exotic.
Following Riccardo Muti’s spring residency, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra turns to lesser-known podium names for a month, including three Latin and/or Iberian guests, one rising and two middling.
The rising conductor is Pablo Heras-Casado, 35, a native of Granada, who started out largely self-made. The son of a police officer, Heras-Casado showed musical talent early, and his parents supported him in being a chorister from boyhood on. Singing Renaissance music made him want to explore it more, especially conducting it. Hearing contemporary music had the same effect, so he founded groups dedicated to each. After Pierre Boulez chose him as a protégé at his Lucerne Festival Academy for new music, he was soon tapped for a world-wide array of guest appearances and is now the principal conductor of New York’s chamber-sized Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
All these elements were apparent in his CSO subscription concert debut Thursday night at Orchestra Hall, in a program billed as “Spanish Passion,” but not all at the same time nor in the best combinations. Heras-Casado appears genuinely engaged in the music and is not any kind of showoff. He seems to be a real listener, and on Thursday, was good at achieving balances, especially in the delicate music of Ravel and a Debussy rarity. But he put no stamp on any of the works played, slowed Ravel’s Pavanne for a Dead Princess to an almost embalmed tempo and could hold no candle to the passion that Daniel Barenboim brings to Andalusian music, such as Falla’s El amor brujo (“Love, the Magician”), which closed the concert. Like Boulez, he uses no baton. This may be a mistake at this point in his still-developing career when authority is so important. A full-time position with a full-time orchestra or opera house also would allow him to build on his genuine strengths.
All three French works were orchestrations of piano pieces, two famously expanded by their composer, Maurice Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (1919) and the Pavanne (1910). The opening Tombeau was the program’s most successful work, with the dances differentiated but still needing some oomph. This also brought the first display of remarkable oboe solos throughout the concert by Eugene Izotov. In between came André Caplet’s 1919 orchestration of a 1913 children’s ballet, Le boîte a jouxjoux (“The Toy Box”) that Debussy left in piano score form before his death in 1918. Surely the composer would have done much more with this piece, filled with whimsy, quotations of other works and a fairy-tale poignance and summation. However, it was intriguing to hear this version and imagine the life and loves of the toy characters. Scott Hostetler’s atmospheric English horn solos were highlights of the 35-minute piece.
The Falla held promise, given the CSO debut of Marina Heredia, a leading flamenco singer from a prominent family in the field and like Heras-Casado, Granada born. With this set of invented “popular” pieces, a conductor can either work with a large-voiced opera singer affecting flamenco style (Leontyne Price with Fritz Reiner on the CSO’s 1963 recording, Barenboim with Jennifer Larmore in 1997) or with an authentic folkloric singer who then has to try to fill a large concert hall rather than a customary intimate cave or club. A microphone and speakers were placed onstage for the sultry, appropriately raspy-voiced Heredia but either they did not work or she did not use them properly; the contrasts of volume, expectations, and results were problematic. Orchestrally, the “Ritual Fire Dance” section had Heras-Casado turning up the heat a bit. But it’s still a chilly spring in Chicago. More, please.
BY ANDREW PATNER
In some ways, what Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin is doing at 41 is more astonishing than what he was sharing with a jaw-dropping world as a 12-year-old and teenager in the 1980s.
He was a prodigy, without question, whose débuts in concert and recital around the world and live recordings were events. But Kissin has not only continued to play with formidable technique and intelligence as an adult, he has restored the idea of the pianist as a star, and as a star based on actual playing, not on glitz, flash, hype, or hair gel, concepts apparently wholly alien to him.
He plays whatever he wants and wherever he wants, with much of his schedule announced through 2016. And he wants to play the great programs in the tradition of his fellow Russians and Russian émigrés and to play them in concert halls for focused fans. He is an ambassador for something seen as old -- unamplified Western art music played live and with seriousness -- that in his case becomes new for each cycle of listeners. Parents and grandparents with young children in tow were in abundance Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall. There was no sense of duty in the air, whether on the part of the charges or their minders. Just keen focus and joy.
Two things stood out Sunday in a program the pianist is touring all season and will bring Friday to New York’s Carnegie Hall. The first was his traversal in the first half of Beethoven’s last of 32 piano sonatas, the C minor, Op. 111 of 1821-22. This is a work that perhaps more than any other requires the highest physical and intellectual skills in tandem, the province of a select echelon of probing artists such as Brendel, Kempff, Arrau, Richard Goode, and Stephen Kovacevich, and not necessarily those identified more as showpiece virtuosos.
Kissin, at least for these 25 minutes, joined their ranks. He saw not only each of the two unique movements whole but the connections between them, too; gave each of the contrasting variations in the second movement its technical due yet also made their connections seamless. Because you never had a moment’s doubt that this summary work was going to flow fully and unchecked, you could actually take time to watch Kissin’s choices in fingering, hand coordination, and pedaling -- none for show, but all good to have as road maps if one suddenly awoke with superhuman keyboard skills. Thomas Mann devoted a whole chapter of his great novel Doctor Faustus to this sonata. This was a performance that showed you why, structurally and philosophically.
As a complement to this achievement, to close the recital’s second half, Kissin took up what is seen almost solely today as a gymnastic crowd-pleaser, Liszt’s mid-19th century Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp minor, and reminded the audience of what we’ve missed as such works have been sidelined or played only with circus style. Along with his second encore (of four!), the same composer’s F minor Transcendental Étude No. 10, this is where Kissin showed how no one since Horowitz can play these sorts of pieces impeccably and so musically. Breathtaking stuff.
The opening 1790 Haydn sonata (in E-flat) mostly served to introduce Kissin’s fascination with how the hands can be used and how throwing their synchronization off just slightly can illuminate melodic and linear development. Four Schubert Impromptus (1827), two each from the D. 935 and D. 899 sets, had great charms and showed insights into achieving certain sounds and colors. Kissin is not at all alone, though, in trying to fit these individual pieces together into some type of a suite. I took them each as they came, one at a time.
In Florida, Kissin, who at times has given a dozen or more encores as an afternoon turns into evening, reportedly played none for some reason. In Boston last week, he gave five. Here, with occasional displays of his small smile, after opening with Sgambatti’s “Mélodie” transcription from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and the aforementioned Liszt étude, there was Liszt’s embroidery on Schubert’s “The Trout”; and although the audience ovations showed no signs of diminishing, as a closer, Chopin’s D minor 24th Prélude from Op. 28, its final low Ds saying, “I’m done.”
The recital, as all of his performances this season, was dedicated by Kissin to the memory of his father, Igor Kissin, a retired engineer, who died last May in New York at 77.
Last performance: Sunday April 28, 3 p.m. Harris Theater
BY ANDREW PATNER
Chicago Opera Theater continues its new “more of the different” mission in dramatic form under general director Andreas Mitisek with the much-belated Chicago première of Astor Piazzolla’s 1967-68 “tango operita” Maria de Buenos Aries, which received an enthusiastic ovation at its Saturday night opening at the Harris Theater.
Perhaps because it was long linked to dance more than opera -- as recently as last month it was presented in New York at the new music basement nightclub (le) poisson rouge -- this continuous 75-minute work, conceived and developed in Buenos Aires and neighboring Uruguay by Piazzolla with the poet Horacio Ferrer, somehow has eluded Chicago stages despite a long vogue for the composer’s “nuevo tango” style since at least the late 1970s.
Piazzolla himself made his Chicago debut on bandoneón -- the concertina-like instrument at the heart of the tango -- at the Park West in 1989, a year before a debilitating stroke in 1990 that led to his death at 71 in 1992. Classical champions of his works, which musically extend the traditional popular dance and song form, have included the Kronos Quartet and violinist Gidon Kremer. And Piazzolla’s fellow native Argentinian Daniel Barenboim, while music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, had an international hit CD of trios in 1996 including a number of the composer-performer’s “new tangos.”
For Maria’s local launch, Mitisek has brought a reconceived staging that was a success at his Long Beach Opera in January of 2012. Without changing music or Spanish-dialect lyrics, Mitisek took Ferrer’s magical realism story -- with its heavy, often overly symbolic language -- and shifted it from the 1930s and 1940s Buenos Aires demi-monde of prostitutes, pimps and tango clubs to the period of Argentina’s brutal “Dirty War” of 1976-1983, when a military junta turned on its own citizens.
At least 13,000 Argentinians from all walks of life were “disappeared” by the military -- some say as many as 30,000 -- in a campaign of kidnapping, torture, murder, and both child abduction and infant abduction from the wombs of “disappeared” women. The election of Pope Francis, former archbishop of Buenos Aires and a leading Jesuit there during the period, has called coincidental attention to this dark and still not wholly addressed era.
The new setting is delivered dramatically with multimedia visuals and full use of the large stage and proscenium at the Harris. Mitisek, who also conducts and designed the production, enlisted highly capable video (Adam Flemming) and lighting (Dan Weingarten) artists from his Long Beach team, and the visual effects are powerful, from a vanishing “wall” of the individual “disappeared” to cages of real and metaphorical hells. A non-speaking actor, Mark Bringelson, is chilling as an officer who leads a silent squad of government rapists and torturers.
How does this work with an at least overtly apolitical story of a young woman “born on a day when God was drunk” with “three nails in her throat” who embodies, through prostitution and broken hearts, the lowlife existence of the tango world, dies for it, and through rebirth, somehow redeems it? Not at all as far as I could tell. But the performances are so powerful and the music so well-executed (and, frankly, Ferrer’s writing is so often over-the-top and almost at a Mad Libs level of imagery; the original staging even had a chorus of psychoanalysts!) that it’s best just to give yourself over to both sides of the presentation.
The strong cast also carries over from Long Beach (and all are acceptably amplified). Young California contralto Peabody Southwell is Maria in spirit, body and deep, dark voice. Mexican-American baritone Gregorio Gonzalez uses his spectacular voice to offer all shades of Maria’s lover/husband/widower. Lecturer-actor Gregorio Luke of Mexico City is a strong presence in the speaking role of the older, recollecting lover. Eight dancers from Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater, choreographed by their Spanish artistic director Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, move atmospherically behind a scrim.
The bravura nine-member ensemble of strings, flute, piano, and percussion is highlighted as it should be by the bandoneon, here in the hands of Italian-American virtuoso Pietro (Peter) Soave. Mitisek and all of the players keep the tight line of the various tango, milonga. and waltz settings at all times, but it is the growling, tunefulness and even crying of the bandoneon that moves and even tells the story. A shame that Soave was not given a curtain call.
Maria’s 14 varied musical sections never really knit fully into a theatrical work -- like a blues, a brief tango, by its nature, tells a whole story -- and Piazzolla never created another full stage piece, but this is a strong if at times perplexing creation.
Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Monday April 15, 2013
Batiashvili's Brahms violin concerto astonishes
BY ANDREW PATNER
Wireless communication meant that the world was too much with many of us, late and soon, on Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall. Just before the much-anticipated Dresden Staatskapelle concert and the long-awaited return to Chicago of its new principal conductor Christian Thielemann, e-mail brought news of the death the night before of trumpet legend Adolph “Bud” Herseth, 91, a Chicago Symphony Orchestra fixture over six decades.
Then, by intermission, Twitter carried word from the London Symphony Orchestra that the widely revered Colin Davis, laureate conductor of the Dresdeners, had just died at 85. That both men were true professionals and that the Staatskapelle is in its 464th(!) year of performing certainly underscored how the show goes on. Orchestras are like that. A name holds and despite the regular turnover and the passage of time, traditions continue and an identity persists.
In the case of Dresden, that identity was preserved in the last century in a complex tradeoff that found the city and its orchestra both behind the Iron Curtain and in a topographical “valley of the blind” without access to West German broadcast television and popular culture. Its rich, deep and warm string sound remains unique, its highly personalized wind -- especially in its pinched just right oboes -- and gentle horns are welcome markers. And its major daily work as an opera orchestra gives it a flexibility that when combined with the relative youth of its current roster and the evident energy of those players make them a conductor’s dream.
Thielemann, who turned 54 this month, has had his battles in previous positions at the former West Berlin Deutsche Oper and the Munich Philharmonic. But he told me in an interview Friday that he knew as early as his first guest conducting with Dresden in 2003 “that this could be a real home for me.” When things ended with Munich, and the Staatskapelle and its previous conductor Fabio Luisi split unhappily, Thielemann and Dresden were ready to start together this season. The position also gives him a smaller and quiet base, away from the daily politics of Bayreuth and the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, whose calendars hold him for many weeks each year. And, through a set of totally unforeseen events, the Thielemann-Dresden team is now the center of the spring Salzburg Easter Festival, abandoned by Berlin after almost 40 years. Their first run, last month, was a box office and critical success.
In the 1990s, it looked as if the United States, and especially Chicago and New York, would be a major part of Thielemann’s professional life. Two subscription weeks with the CSO and a Meistersinger at Lyric were electrifying, as were three different Richard Strauss productions at the Metropolitan Opera. But personal and political issues arose and Thielemann’s career in Germany (he is a native and lifelong Berliner) and Austria took off dramatically. It was fitting that this return to North America and first trip here with Dresden started in Chicago.
An all-Brahms program let all parts of this new team show their chops. Virtuosity matched with warmth; energy was coupled with detail. Watching the trumpets in the Academic Festival Overture sitting in Herseth’s old seats had both an eerie and invigorating quality. The great D Major Violin Concerto brought a third eloquent partner, Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, for as fine a live performance of the work that I can recall. Her playing arose from the orchestra sound and was never imposed upon it. She had a combination of strength and intimacy that brought David Oistrakh to mind. That she plays a 1715 Stradivarius that belonged to Joseph Joachim, the dedicatee and first performer of the concerto, added yet another line of underscoring to the pervasive sense of continuity. There was constant listening and communication between soloist, conductor, and orchestra, and details and Romantic emphases often brushed past emerged clearly. Even the odd little Busoni cadenza, a dialogue with timpanist Thomas Käppler, fit perfectly. A 1990s alumna of Ravinia’s Steans Institute (then using her given name, Elisabeth), Batiashvili made her CSO debut in Highland Park 13 years ago with Christoph Eschenbach. She needs to be a part of our lives here again.
At times the E minor Fourth Symphony seemed to have almost too much energy. But Thielemann and his crew made this driving version cohere and even gave one of the most convincing, well-delineated, Andante moderato movements imaginable. What occasional raggedness there was felt more like celebration and personality. The large audience went fairly wild and an obviously very happy Thielemann -- a tall and big man -- bounded back on to the stage and with a large grin, spun around and called up a spirited encore of the Prelude to Act 3 of Wagner’s Lohengrin. It’s a shame that we did not also get the second program of the Bruckner Eighth Symphony that Carnegie Hall will have later this week. But it was good to see these artists in top form here, so well connected with each other, and reminding us, through that great optimist Brahms, that life rolls on.