2008 -- A very good Chicago classical and opera year -- Chicago Sun-Times
Here is my December 28, 2008 Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com "Sunday Show" "Classical and Opera Chicago Year in Review" for 2008.
DOWNTURN? NOT HERE
THE YEAR IN REVIEW -- CLASSICAL
Despite slump talk, the scene is thriving like
never before in Chicago, where Lyric has been
dazzling and the able CSO nears a transition
BY ANDREW PATNER
Perhaps Chicago is just temporarily dodging the current bullets of economic crisis and the alleged decline of interest in classical music but 2008 has been a banner year for great performances, big news, young groups and audiences, and even fiscal results. Frankly, there were more more moving, challenging, satisfying, and impressive performances in and around Chicago this year than one could count, let alone attend.
Herewith a necessarily incomplete lucky seven of local achievements and trends.
1. Riccardo Muti takes the mantle at the CSO.
In a combination of long-simmering secret and extended public courtship, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made the front pages of newspapers and websites around the world in early May when it announced that it had signed Riccardo Muti, one of the last of the international box-office maestri, to be its 10th music director beginning with the 2010-2011 season. The raven-haired Neapolitan, 67, who led the Philadelphia Orchestra throughout the 1980s and reigned for 19 years at Milan’s legendary La Scala opera house, had twice spurned well-publicized offers to head the New York Philharmonic leading to the CSO's receiving the classical “Brass Ring” prize for 2008 from The New York Times.
2. Bernard Haitink’s steady and inspirational hand.
When Muti leads CSO performances of the Verdi Requiemnext month (he doesn’t start here full-time for 20 months), he’ll find an orchestra in superb condition, a legacy of the prunings, hirings, and musical standards of former music director Daniel Barenboim, but also of the elegant and calming leadership of the CSO’s interim chief, Bernard Haitink. The widely revered Dutchman, 79, arrived in Chicago at just the right time in the orchestra’s evolution and his own lengthy career. Orchestra members stressed and divided emotionally at the end of the tumultuous Barenboim era were ready for a real gentleman on the podium. And players and audiences quickly became enthralled by the immediate excitement generated by the combination of orchestra, conductor, and major work repertoire, an instant harmony that surprised even Haitink himself. A European tour with Haitink in the fall was a huge success; recordings under his baton and issued by the CSO’s own new label, Resound, set sales and download records and saw the orchestra return to its Georg Solti-era place as a Grammy contender.
3. Lyric’s honorable roll.
While Lyric Opera of Chicago's season's have not always looked riveting on paper, 2008 saw a series of superb productions, singing, and orchestral playing. Superstar Renée Fleming and young North Shore native Matthew Polenzani set off real sparks in last season’s second cast of La Traviata in January. Music director Sir Andrew Davis had his first big success in a Verdi opera here with Falstaff and American mezzo Joyce DiDinato thrilled nightly as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, her much-belated Lyric debut. A superb Eugene Onegin with two Slavic singers taking the title role carried Lyric all the way into spring. This fall has already seen four gobsmackingly good productions of three relative rarities -- Massenet’s Manon, Alban Berg’s Lulu, and the long overdue but pitch- and picture-perfect Lyric première of Porgy and Bess -- with Patricia Racette in the title role of Madama Butterfly currently rocking the Civic Opera House. Chorus Master Donald Nally’s Holly and Ivy concert, the first ever by the Lyric Chorus, set a new high bar for downtown choral performance and programming.
4. The little company that still can.
Even before the current philanthropic and underwriting downturn, it has been a miracle that Chicago Opera Theater’s Brian Dickie and his board and staff are able to work magic with the paltriest of budgets. You would never know of any financial woes from listening to the great international young singers who perform in COT’s annual spring season in the Harris Theater in Millennium Park or from its ahead-of-the-pack productions and stagings. This year COT scored another coup when it became the first Chicago company to get on board the big-screen-simulcast train with a projection of its dark, brilliant Don Giovanni to the seats and Great Lawn of the Pritzker Pavilion in May. Others were more impressed with John Adams’ opera-ish A Flowering Tree than I was, but major props to COT for securing and presenting the U.S. stage première from such an in-demand composer.
5. A tradition of making things new.
Shauna Quill has had four top-drawer predecessors as executive director of The University of Chicago Presents, the city’s most important by a mile chamber music series. But none of them had tried the sort of international, multi-venue, cross-disciplinary and -genre 10-day festival that Quill conceived and executed flawlessly to commemorate the centenary of the visionary French composer Olivier Messiaen. From marathon organ and piano recitals to chamber and song programs to Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to the Chicago première of Paul Festa’s knock-out Messiaen-on-acid documentary. And if that wasn’t enough, Quill, who's also an active presence on the music scene outside of Hyde Park, scored the final U.S. concert by the superb Alban Berg Quartet in February, and this season has already hosted the Chicago premières of the complete string quartets of nonagenarian Milton Babbitt and a major cantata from Renaissance Croatia.
Local artists have been getting well-deserved national and international recognition of late. Jim Ginsburg’s Cedille Records had three Grammy winners in 2008, and local native Jennifer Koh’s fantastic String Poetic CD gained two nominations for 2009. Koh’s album of tough and unusual American works, with pianist Reiko Uchida, has made critics’ lists across the country. Chicago-based Pacifica Quartet was named Ensemble of the Year by the 2009 Musical America annual, saluted especially for its commitment to the complete quartets of this month’s 100-years-young musical birthday boy, Elliott Carter.
And London’s The Gramophone mag named the CSO the best orchestra in North America. As with other such rankings, this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, The New York Times waited until this fall to announce that Daniel Barenboim was a musical genius and that the CSO was actually a great orchestra, two and a half year s after the peripatetic conductor-pianist-internationalist left Chicago. And with much to be excited about in 2009, let’s make the last recognition that of Barenboim’s triumphant and exquisite piano recital just last week at the Harris. It was an end-of -the-year jewel atop an embarrassment of riches.