My Friday October 29 suntimes.com and Saturday October 30 Chicago Sun-Times review of the Thursday October 28, 2010 Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert with guest conductor Jaap van Zweden and soprano Measha Brueggergosman.
My Friday October 29 suntimes.com and Saturday October 30 Chicago Sun-Times review of the Thursday October 28, 2010 Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert with guest conductor Jaap van Zweden and soprano Measha Brueggergosman.
North Central College's Wentz Hall in Naperville 'a gem'
This week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts are serving many purposes.
Wednesday offered the first installment of this season’s CSO Afterwork Masterworks series of early evening, shorter, and intermissionless programs. Thursday brought a run-out to the acoustically delightful Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College in Naperville. The week’s string-based repertoire showcases the sound of a chamber-sized orchestra. All of the performances feature the spirited playing of Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham.
I caught the Thursday concert, in part because it included the first CSO performance of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s 1939-1959 Concerto funebre as a part of Shaham’s ongoing survey of concertos from the 1930s. (It will be repeated on tonight’s program as well.) I also wanted to get out to Wentz, a 605-seat gem, that opened two years ago as an anchor of the revived fine arts programs at North Central. I was very glad that I did.
This was the CSO’s second visit to the Naperville hall, and its first with a reduced-size ensemble. With a concept and acoustical design by Oak Park’s internationally renowned Talaske/Sound Thinking (who designed the sound system at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion), the room is physically intimate but with a large vertical space and other features that allow for full resonance and reverberation. Just a 40-minute train ride from Chicago’s Union Station, Wentz is a worthy additional venue for the metropolitan area.
The Downstate-born Shaham is somehow billed as conductor of these concerts, and that’s a misnomer. In the Hartmann and two Classical-era works, he leads the players as a soloist, making few other gestures toward his colleagues. Samuel Barber’s 1935-36 Adagio for Strings is led assuredly by assistant concertmaster Yuan-Qing Yu from her seat. Regardless of the billing confusion, the concert offers satisfying pairings and contrasts of Haydn and Mozart, Barber and Hartmann, and classical and neo-classical.
Hartmann (1905-1963), a non-Jewish German composer, chose what he termed an “inner exile” while remaining in Munich during the Nazi period and World War II but refusing performances of his works. Begun in 1939 as Music of Mourning for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, this version was reworked 20 years later as a “Funeral Concerto” for solo violin and strings. Fierce and angry, it was a fascinating 20-minute counterpoint to Barber’s basically contemporaneous and much more compact work, particularly with both the lightness and intensity of chamber forces.
Haydn’s G Major Concerto No. 4 from the 1760s and Mozart’s “Turkish” A Major turn from 1775, K. 219, framed the 20th century pieces, with players and Shaham demonstrating passion and delicacy as appropriate.
As it awaits the recovery and return of Riccardo Muti, its temporarily sidelined music director, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's parent association gathered Thursday afternoon at Orchestra Hall to celebrate a strong financial report from its last fiscal year.
Despite a recession-hit economy, annual fund support from more than 13,500 donors totaled $21.6 million, a 3 percent increase over the previous year. For the fourth consecutive year, the CSO balanced its books, this year on an operating budget of $61.6 million, and showed a small surplus of $41,000. An additional $3.5 million in gifts to the CSO's endowment of $205 million brought total giving last year to a little more than $25 million.
Muti is on the mend, said CSO board chairman William A. Osborn, who received a call Thursday from Muti from his home in Ravenna, Italy. The conductor told him he had no serious health problems beyond the effects of exhaustion diagnosed earlier this month. Muti also reiterated that his primary commitment is to Chicago and the CSO, and that he would be curtailing some of his other activities.
Ticket sales for all CSO and other Symphony Center Presents concerts and programs were off $100,000 from last year's $20.7 million. Even so, that figure amounts to the third best season in CSO history, and it marks the fifth consecutive year to exceed $20 million in ticket sales.
The Beethoven Festival conceived and led by outgoing principal conductor Bernard Haitink was a clear shot in the arm, "far surpassing expectations," said CSO Association president Deborah F. Rutter. Capacity for the concerts averaged more than 96 percent and ticket sales amounted to almost 10 percent of the whole season's sales.
Subscription sales showed signs of the economic downturn, dropping 7 percent from the previous year. But unusually strong single-ticket sales, a boost of 3 percent, brought the CSO subscription series attendance to more than 82 percent paid capacity.
Last season, the CSO Association presented more than 260 musical programs, including 162 CSO concerts and 50 Symphony Center Presents events. More than half a million people attended these programs, and 388,619 tickets were sold for the 211 ticketed concerts.
Newer initiatives had strong results with the CSO's Beyond the Score concert and narration series increasing its subscriptions by 28 percent and increasing ticket sales over all by 66 percent after the doubling of concert dates.
Investment returns helped to increase the endowment by 11 percent. Ticket sales and other earned revenues made up 47 percent of income with tour fees, merchandise and CD sales, space rentals, and recording fees and royalties bringing in 53 percent.
Osborn was re-elected as Association chairman, with Joyce T. Green and Robert A. Kohl joining the ranks of five vice chairs.
The passing of time is often a subject in Dmitri Shostakovich's 15 string quartets. It is also a part of their story. The Soviet composer came relatively late to the form, writing his first quartet at 31 in 1938, after he had already gained worldwide attention for his Fifth Symphony and other works. The genre then became, along with his 15 symphonies, a major part of his focus for 36 years, almost up until his death at 68 in 1975.
Remarkably, it was not until 1982 that American audiences had the chance to experience the full cycle of works when Britain's Fitzwilliam Quartet, to whom Shostakovich had entrusted the premières of his last three works in the series, brought them to New York. This was the time when the so-called Shostakovich Wars were in full flame, with academic arguments spilling over into the newspapers about whether the composer's music was political or personal or both and whether he had been a servant of the Soviet communist regime or a semi-secret dissident.
Those dates are all long ago for the young members of the Illinois-based Pacifica Quartet. And that is just as well, as the ensemble begins its own survey of these landmark chamber works in Chicago, at the Krannert Center at their University of Illinois home base, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (where they are quartet in residence). and at London's Wigmore Hall over the next two seasons. A recording of the set with Chicago's Cedille Records is also a part of their ambitious project.
For the Pacifica can now play these pieces as music without having to stake a position on their additional meanings. Even Robert Strong's useful program notes follow the work of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Judith Kuhn, who has been the first to look at all the quartets from a truly musicological perspective.
I have run hot and cold and in-between on the Pacifica over the years, finding their work with modern and contemporary music -- such as their marathon performances of the complete quartets of America’s senior composer Elliott Carter -- much more convincing than that with the classic repertoire. I also experienced some periods when technical difficulties appeared too frequently.
Judging from their opening Shostakovich program Sunday afternoon at Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall, any reservations about the group can be discarded. Their performance of the first three quartets was so accomplished, cohesive, and inspiring that you would have thought they had been playing these works all of their lives, rather than just launching their full survey. This was the sort of playing that can only come from a group that has set the highest standards for itself and can both meet them and work together in complete unity.
The First Quartet, in C Major, Op. 49, was written in the summer of 1938, a year after the Fifth Symphony had restored Shostakovich to public and official esteem. At just 15 minutes, it is the shortest in the series but an accomplished effort to make the traditional four-person, four-movement structure work with a mid-20th century voice, albeit one that remains tonal, as did almost all of Shostakovich's works throughout his life.
The Second Quartet, in A Major, Op. 68, came in 1944 as World War II was in some of its darkest days, but while Shostakovich and his family were able to spend the summer in seclusion at a government-supported guest house for artists. One of the composer's first two works, along with the Second Piano Trio, to feature Jewish folk themes, the Pacifica played the 35-minute piece with such refinement and commitment that they received both pin-drop silence in the hall and a rare and deserved mid-program standing ovation at its conclusion. I have heard the work live many times and cannot imagine hearing it played better than this.
With the Third Quartet, in F Major, Op. 73, written in 1946, we start to hear many more of the motifs, treatments, and tricks that characterize Shostakovich's music. They make one wonder how much of what is good in his music is original and how much that is original is any good. Perhaps initially written to describe the war and its aftermath as they affected the Soviet Union, the five-movement, half-hour work was published without its proposed narrative subtitles. Jewish themes appear, as a political statement or as a personal identification with people who could, in the composer's words, "build a jolly melody on sad intonations," we do not know.
Emotions take center stage here in the composition, sometimes in overly obvious ways. But the four players, first violin Simin Ganatra, second violin Sibbi Bernhardsson, viola Masumi Per Rostad, and cello Brandon Vamos, play with such dignity and care, and listen to one another so completely, that one is fully engaged in their performance at all times. How they managed to repeat this entire and intense program at Ganz later the same evening I do not know. But that is how they have chosen to present the series to get maximum audience in an appropriately intimate hall.
This is one of the great events of the season. Kudos to the Pacifica, Roosevelt's Chicago College of Performing Arts and its dean Henry Fogel, and Shauna Quill of the University of Chicago Presents and its 16-month showcase The Soviet Arts Experience for making it happen.
October 31 brings the 4th and 5th quartets as well as the earlier and well-known 1940 Piano Quintet with young pianist Orion Weiss. Three more programs take place in January and February 2011.
Tonight from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. CDT on 98.7WFMT Radio Chicago and via free streaming anywhere in the world at wfmt.com my guest (in the first of two [or three?] new programs recorded on October 15) will be the legendary composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, Helen Regenstein conductor emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, discussing Mahler's Seventh Symphony and Anton Webern's Passacaglia for Orchestra, Op. 1., the two works on his recent CSO programs.
Boulez returns to Chicago's Orchestra Hall for his regularly scheduled two-week CSO residency with music of Debussy, the Ligeti Violin Concerto with CSO concertmaster Robert Chen as soloist, and Franco Donatoni November 26 and 27 and Schoenberg's Transfigured Night and Janáček's Glagolitic Mass with the Chicago Symphony Chorus December 2, 3, and 4.
The program will then be posted later this week at wfmt.com/criticalthinking for free podcast/download/streaming.
See you on the radio!
If life gives you lemons, make a tart au citron.
That was the strategy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when music director Riccardo Muti fell ill two weeks ago and returned to Italy for medical tests. What other institution could then pull the legendary composer-conductor Pierre Boulez out of a hat to fill in for Muti’s last scheduled October concerts, and have him offering instead four performances of a major program of Mahler and Anton Webern?
Boulez began his current close association with the CSO when former music director Daniel Barenboim invited him to return to Chicago some 20 years ago. In 1995, the relationship was formalized with the title of principal guest conductor (only the third in the CSO’s history). Now 85 and the CSO’s first Helen Regenstein conductor emeritus, Boulez restricts his appearances to only a few major orchestras.
There is nothing token or thrown together with Boulez, even for a last-minute substitution. “I would have done this even if I had had to rearrange my schedule,” Boulez said after the performance. “For the orchestra, for the team, for Muti. The friendship is there and is strong. I feel very much for him.”
The availability of a top name also enabled the CSO to keep its date for a PBS Great Performances taping by New York’s WNET, previously scheduled as a part of Muti’s opening weeks.
Chicagoans must find it odd that Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 is seen as the ugly duckling among the composer’s output. Written in 1904-05, the work had its U.S. premiere here in 1921 under Frederick Stock, who so believed in the piece that he played it the next two seasons as well. Even if fewer conductors program the 80-minute work, when that few includes Solti, Abbado, Barenboim, and Boulez, the work is not a stranger here.
Nor should it be. Its “Night Music” sections are among Mahler’s most personal creations, and the middle movement scherzo is perfect heartbreak. The sheer range of sounds that emerges from the large orchestra -- a repeated song from the unusual tenor horn, chilly timpani rolls, tuba murmurs, the infamous cowbells, and even guitar and mandolin -- points to Mahler’s sense of expansion and experiment. Even his approach to an optimistic finale has a way of getting under the listener’s skin.
Boulez knows all of this and brings all of this out, of course, as he did when he led it here four years ago as well. After recently hearing some younger and vastly less experienced conductors take up some of the "Mahler Nine," it was beyond refreshing to hear this supposedly sprawling work guided by a master’s hand. Delicacy, structure, harmonic invention are all made clear. The music is rich without exaggeration.
It was also interesting to contrast the interpretations of two senior figures with Webern’s 1908 Passacaglia for Orchestra, Op. 1. When Bernard Haitink led this historically transitional 10-minute work in 2006, there was a sense of sweep and flow, a painterly quality as in a Monet cityscape. That depth was also present with Boulez, but seemed to have been achieved out of individual points, as in a Seurat painting. How lucky we have been to have these two great leaders with this great orchestra.
Boulez has two weeks of can’t-miss CSO subscription concerts as a part of his regular schedule, including Ligeti’s Violin Concerto with concertmaster Robert Chen in late November and Janáček’s massive Glagolitic Mass in early November. These are good times.
'Carmen' full of surprises
The staples of the operatic repertoire often hold the unexpected. Will the audience discover a new talent? Will a director help us see an old friend in a new light? Will the orchestra exceed expectations?
Such is the case of what was once the John Copley production of Bizet's Carmen, which opened Wednesday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Copley's traditional concept allows for a straightforward performance of this 1875 tale of steamy Gypsy love and madness, although his name is nowhere to be seen in this edition's program. The refreshed Robin Don sets and Robert Perdziola costumes don’t seem 10 years old under Jason Brown’s new lighting. And for the most part, Harry Silverstein's new direction lets us concentrate on the story of Carmen and Don Jose and listen to the much-loved music. That in itself can count as novel these days.
Alain Altinoglu, the Armenian-French conductor making his Lyric debut, has those hands. He knows how to pace each section and melody; he also knows the dance rhythms that Bizet used and the ways that the composer adapted them. The singing, always beautifully supported by Altinoglu, becomes a part of the score, and the drama moves forward as a unity.
Surprise No. 2 comes from Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, a recent Mannes School alum, as the doomed Don José. Thin and initially reserved, he possesses an unexpectedly powerful voice. The tougher the material, the more he rises to the occasion as both singer and actor. His Flower Song in Act 2 literally stopped the show. His descent into an eerie, murderous stalker in Act 4 was frighteningly believable. A career to watch.
Surprise No. 3 -- the continuing recasting of the title role -- had a bit of the edge off by opening night. Both the intended Carmen and José were hit with life-threatening illnesses last year; then the much-anticipated Kate Aldrich had to withdraw late in the rehearsal period from what was to be her debut due to side effects of pregnancy.
Iowa-born Katharine Goeldner, set to sing only the October 29 date, stepped up. Hers is an old-fashioned but often enjoyable stage performance -- she even states in the program that she models her characterization on Rita Hayworth in her 1948 Hollywood vehicle The Loves of Carmen. But audiences today expect more fire and sensuality in this part. She sings wonderfully, though; she'll grow into her partnership with Lee. Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva was already slated to head up the March 2011 cast when the production returns.
There's rarely much love for José's jilted gal Micaëla, but Cuban-American soprano Elaine Alvarez, a show-saver as a last-minute Mimi here three years ago, adds little of her own fire, either. Some of this might be because she has been dressed as if she were the milkmaid mother in an opera of Heidi. (Nicole Cabell will take this role in the spring.)
But baritone Kyle Ketelsen, another Iowa native, gives a breakout turn as the toreador Escamillo -- a part much harder than it might seem -- despite being made up to look like Zeppo Marx. Ryan Center soprano Jennifer Jakob, mezzo Emily Fons, baritone Paul Scholten and tenor René Barbera are well above the usual level as Gypsies Frasquita and Mercédès and their smuggler sidekicks. Their Ryan colleagues Craig Irvin and Paul La Rosa are also impressive in supporting parts.
It's the music that reigns here, however, and Lee's strong and haunting performance. Donald Nally's chorus excels, and Josephine Lee gets superb work from members of her Chicago Children's Choir. Silverstein needs to step up the last act march to match the idiomatic spirit that Altinoglu brings from Lyric's orchestra and its section soloists.
Muti withdraws from concerts with Cherubini Orchestra
Riccardo Muti appears to be following his doctors' orders.
In keeping with statements from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that the Italian conductor has been prescribed a month of "complete rest" at his home in Ravenna, management of Vienna's famed Musikverein concert hall announced Thursday that Muti has withdrawn from concerts there with his Luigi Cherubini Orchestra of younger musicians set for November 7 and 8.
Muti was to have led a three-city, four-concert tour with the Cherubini and the Vienna Singverein chorus and vocal soloists in works of Mozart, Haydn, and Rossini. Bertrand de Billy, until recently music director of the Vienna State Radio Orchestra, will substitute for Muti, according to the Musikverein website. On Friday, the website of the Cherubini Orchestra was updated to show de Billy as leading the November 4 and 5 concerts in Graz and Linz as well.
No announcements have been made as to whether November rehearsals or December performances with Muti scheduled at the Rome Opera have been effected.
Muti fell ill with intense stomach pains in Chicago almost two weeks ago and after canceling two weeks of CSO engagements and returning to Italy for medical observation was diagnosed with stress-induced physical exhaustion.
He is due back in Chicago for rehearsals and other duties in January 2011.
Here is my Tuesday afternoon October 12 suntimes.com and Wednesday October 13, 2010, Chicago Sun-Times update on Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
With a technique universally called "rock-solid," a confidence without arrogance in difficult repertoire, and a four-decade career, it was little wonder that the international operatic soprano Joan Sutherland was known from an early date as "La Stupenda."
The last survivor of the great trio of adventurous postwar bel canto sopranos born in the 1920s, along with Maria Callas and Beverly Sills -- and the one with the longest career and most assured trill by an Australian mile -- Miss Sutherland, 83, died Sunday at her home near Geneva, Switzerland, where she had retired from singing 20 years ago. She had been in declining health since a fall in her garden in 2008.
Although her primary U.S. house was the Metropolitan in New York, she performed major roles at Lyric Opera of Chicago over a quarter century, making her debut with the company in 1961 at 34 in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor opposite both the tenors Richard Tucker and Carlo Bergonzi. She did not return to Lyric for 10 years, but when she did it was for a major 1971 presentation of Rossini's Semiramide with her longtime friend and colleague, mezzo Marilyn Horne. It also marked Lyric's first live opening-night radio broadcast, over WFMT-FM (98.7).
Two other big Chicago engagements followed quickly: Miss Sutherland took the lead role in Lyric's first performances of Donizetti's comedy The Daughter of the Regiment, with an all-star cast in 1973, and a revival of her Lucia, this time opposite her frequent performance partner Luciano Pavarotti in 1975.
Another 10 years passed before her last return in 1985, when Lyric gave her something that even the Met would not: a company première and a new production of a connoisseurs' work by Donizetti, his Anna Bolena. Miss Sutherland turned 59 during the three-week run and sang with undiminished vocal power and ability.
Lyric's general director William Mason and Brian Dickie, general director of Chicago Opera Theater, spoke of her independently with almost the same words. For Mason, she was "one of the greatest singers of the century." For Dickie, "one of the greatest of all" and, invoking Pavarotti's sobriquet for her, "the voice of the century." Mason recalled "her big, beautiful voice married to a flexibility that was unusual for a voice of that size" and referred to her fabled technique as "incredible." Dickie found it "miraculous."
"She was a defining light for my generation in Britain," said the English-born Dickie. "In her early days in the 1950s, she was a member of Covent Garden in London, along with Jon Vickers and Geraint Evans. She sang around town on every kind of gig. Nothing was too small for her. She already was loved by everyone, and she loved everything. Even after her career took off with a whoosh with Zeffirelli's new Lucia at Covent Garden in 1959, she kept coming to Glyndebourne until 1961, including her historic I Puritani [by Bellini] in 1960.
"After that she was in demand globally," Dickie said. "But she never changed. We had a hilariously happy lunch of take-away fish and chips in Aldeburgh a dozen years ago when she was teaching at the Britten-Pears School."
Over the decades, Chicago critics were not alone in finding her voice sometimes stronger than it was beautiful and her technique more impressive than moving, occasionally referring to her sound and characterization as "icy." So it was hardly surprising that one of her greatest accomplishments came in a recording of a work she never appeared in onstage, the 1972 Decca discs of Puccini's Turandot in which she sang the part of the ultimate ice princess opposite Pavarotti with Zubin Mehta conducting and Montserrat Caballé as Liù.
Her powerful voice also fit as a part of the quartet in Georg Solti's famous 1967 Vienna Philharmonic recording of the Verdi Requiem along with Pavarotti, Horne, and bass Martti Talvela.
The Decca label released a statement from London citing Miss Sutherland's astonishing 40 recordings of 33 different operas for the company over 40 years. She had performed the role of Lucia, including its grueling mad scene, 233 times, according to Decca. Her 1960 double-album recital release for the label, The Art of the Prima Donna, has never been out of print, according to the statement. Recordings, too, allowed her to avoid the issue of her often wooden stage presence.
The tight professional and personal relationship she had since 1954 with her husband, conductor, coach, and fellow Australian Richard Bonynge helped to assure her stardom; Bonynge directed her repertoire toward the Italian bel canto to feature her voice and often cut and rearranged works to highlight her roles, even removing death scenes so that her character would remain alive at opera's end, as in their 1964 recording of Semiramide.
This practice put her in marked contrast with her friend Horne, who threw herself into the scholarly revival of 19th century Italian opera spearheaded by University of Chicago musicologist Philip Gossett. Also unlike Horne, diction was never a major focus.
A former secretarial school student with a strong memory and sense of pitch and a big sound, Miss Sutherland moved from her native Australia, where she was born in Sydney in 1926, to London in 1951 to continue vocal studies.
After a decade with Covent Garden, she made her U.S. debut in 1960 in the American première of Handel's Alcina at the Dallas Opera, a company directed by two of the original founders of Lyric. Her Met debut, as Lucia, followed a year later.
[Joan Sutherland, the Australian opera soprano, arrives at the State Department for a dinner celebrating her and the other Kennedy Center honorees, in Washington on December 4, 2004. Sutherland died Sunday at age 83. (AP)]
Always proud of her Australian background, she also was claimed by many other countries. In 1978, she was made a dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. In 2004 she became a Kennedy Center honoree.
Often called an "anti-diva," Miss Sutherland was family-centered and plainspoken. Her hobbies were needlepoint and gardening, and nothing got in the way of her regular appointments with hair stylists to maintain her matronly coiffure.
When she made a public appearance at The Arts Club of Chicago in 1998 to promote her book The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland: A Prima Donna's Progress, she was brash and jocular. She called mezzo Cecilia Bartoli's coloratura "odd" and claimed not to know of soprano June Anderson, who in the 1980s and '90s at Lyric sang many of what had been Miss Sutherland's roles.
She is survived by her husband, their son Adam, and two grandchildren. She had requested a small and private funeral.