Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Friday March 25, 2012 8:07PM CDT
Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Friday March 25, 2012 8:07PM CDT
Cyrus Chestnut plays Rhapsody in Blue Wednesday with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography
BY ANDREW PATNER
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra launched its three-week “Keys to the City” piano festival with a program Wednesday filled with bonhomie and whimsy but with decidedly mixed results.
Wednesday evening that emphasis meant Mozart’s 1779 E-Flat Major Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365 stuck to its name in terms of instrumentation but featured four soloists rather than two. In brief onstage comments, Ax explained that the first piano part, written by Mozart for his gifted older sister, Nannerl, would be taken by Israeli-American Orli Shaham and that, in a contemporary bow to chivalry, three different men would play opposite her. Amusing, ahem, musical chairs took place during both place changes and page turning.
While this might sound gimmicky, it turned out to be an interesting and enjoyable exercise, in part because of Ax’s choice of young colleagues and the way he apportioned the concerto’s three movements: Each section either matched the temperament of the performer or found him bringing his own stamp to it. Israeli Benjamin Hochman offered an attractively brainy and rhythmically spiky opening allegro, Ax himself made subtle, soft poetry out of the slow movement, and American Orion Weiss marched joyfully through the rondo finale. Shaham was a fluid, flexible, and smiling partner to all three of her artistic suitors.
A seductive improviser with classical and jazz training and an ear and touch for quiet passage work and unusual harmonies, pianist Cyrus Chestnut seemed a brilliant choice to take on George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Whether due to nervousness, poor preparation, or a slip in technique, though, Chestnut seemed to be giving two different performances over the same quarter of an hour. His improvisatory passages showed a keen understanding of the work’s concept and of music that came before and after its landmark 1924 première, with moments of Chopin and bebop arising naturally in these stretches.
But in the written passages that are the bulk of the work, Chestnut repeatedly missed and mussed notes, overpedaled, and had trouble getting volume out of the Steinway. (This last problem was due in part to the odd decision to use the full-sized Ferde Grofé orchestration rather than the more appropriate -- for a jazz pianist -- original jazz band version.) Guest conductor David Robertson was ingenious in not only doing his best to work with Chestnut’s erraticism but also in leading a wonderful performance of the orchestral side of this ever-brilliant piece.
Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony and soon to add the top job at the Sydney (Australia) Symphony Orchestra, framed the program with two orchestra-only Ravel works that also have famous piano versions, one of which, the 1919-20 La valse, will be heard in its two-piano version with Ax and a young colleague in a program of duo piano works next Wednesday.
Opening with the 1911 Mother Goose Suite that Ravel drew from his 1908-10 children’s four-hand piano duet, Robertson demonstrated the focused, contemporary sense of French music he honed in his near-decade as music director of Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain. This was even more apparent in his taut, wholly -- and appropriately -- unsentimental concert-closing orchestral La valse.
Robertson, who is married to Shaham, and Ax continue with CSO subscription concerts Thursday night, Friday afternoon, and Saturday night with Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto No. 5 bracketed by Hindemith and Rachmaninoff orchestra pieces.
Pokorny makes the tuba sing in concerto
Conductor Jaap van Zweden; soloist Gene Pokorny
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
with Gene Pokorny, tuba
◆ 8 p.m. Saturday at Wentz Hall in Naperville
◆ Tickets, $127-$152
◆ (312) 294-3000; www.cso.org
By ANDREW PATNER
The upcoming NATO Summit has played havoc with the city’s cultural landscape. Sold by the mayor as a means of “showcasing” Chicago, the meetings now will mean that museums will be closed for a full three days, with no reimbursement of lost income, and live performances have been canceled or oddly rescheduled.
Fortunately, the opening of a Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription program on a Tuesday afternoon rather than a Thursday night went off well, with audience members transferring smoothly mostly from their original Friday afternoon series to the new odd day and time.
Jaap van Zweden, this week’s guest conductor at Orchestra Hall, has moved in less than four years from knock-out last-minute substitute to regular member of the CSO roster. Former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in his native Amsterdam, van Zweden, 51, has been music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 2008 and will take up the Hong Kong Philharmonic helm this fall. Local audiences have come to expect excitement and innovative programming from this intense but upbeat musician.
Excitement they got, especially in a second-half Beethoven Symphony No. 7 presented as almost a race against time. If there was nothing new or innovative in the first half, there was much beauty, starting with a wonderfully paced and led opener of Shostakovich’s so-called Chamber Symphony for Strings in C Minor, Op. 110a (actually a 1967 string orchestra transcription, by the composer’s friend the late Rudolf Barshai, of Shostakovich’s 1960 String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110) and a rare performance of a most unusual concerto.
Shostakovich so liked Barshai’s version of his quartet that he not only gave it his blessing but added it to his official catalog. It’s a mainstay of chamber orchestras, but the CSO has presented it only once before, four years ago, with, of all people, early music man John Eliot Gardiner. Van Zweden avoided unnecessary ratcheting up of the score and any bathos in this heavily self-referential material (try counting how many times Shostakovich uses his four-note musical monogram in the original, and you could go mad). Instead, he and the reduced CSO strings brought out its almost ethereal side. Concertmaster Robert Chen and Kenneth Olsen in the principal cello seat for this concert offered wholly effective solos.
Ethereal is the word, too, for, believe it or not, the slow movement romanza of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto (1953-54), especially as played by its most famous interpreter, legendary former CSO principal Arnold Jacobs, in performance and on recording with a young Daniel Barenboim. This week’s soloist is Jacobs’s more than worthy successor and fervent disciple, Gene Pokorny, CSO principal since 1989.
For six minutes, Pokorny convinces you that there is no more beautiful sound or instrument than in this English-music almost-love-song slow movement from the bass end of the brass section. The opening prelude, with its astonishing run-filled cadenza, and the rapid finale are as convincing and hold their share of humor. But to be made to cry -- in a good way -- by a tuba is a rare pleasure. This week’s program marks the work’s first performances here since those by Jacobs in the 1970s. Too long a wait, especially with a musician of Pokorny’s caliber on hand. The humble soloist -- wearing a red tie picturing The Three Stooges -- earned several curtain calls.
There’s certainly no one way to play Beethoven’s beloved A Major Seventh. But I still have a number of what admittedly were late career or summing-up interpretations in my head by other conductors on this stage and was a bit taken aback by van Zweden’s pedal-to-the-metal version. He held it together, though, and had such section leaders as Chen, flute Mathieu Dufour, clarinet John Bruce Yeh, and bassoon William Buchman and their seatmates racing along with him. The audience erupted in cheers and “bravos” at the end of the famous finale. Me, I prefer the van Zweden who brings excitement through depth as well.
The program was repeated as an intermissionless Wednesday Afterwork Masterworks concert and again Thursday evening. Orchestra, conductor, and soloist travel to the bright and intimate Wentz Concert Hall at Naperville's North Central College Saturday night, far from summiters and and their protestors.
Too random, too loud for such a necessary CSO series
BY ANDREW PATNER
Over the years, a large, youthful, and attentive audience has gravitated to these four new music programs at the Harris Theater each season. Free pizza and beer after the shows truly seem to be conversation enablers rather than the ticket-sale enticements they started out as. Literally hundreds of people are in the Harris lobby going at it about music, composers, and performance for at least an hour post-concert. Invited DJs provide a talk-party ambience.
At the same time, while musical execution by players mostly from the CSO is usually top-flight, presentation and format in the hall itself have become uneasy. Printed programs were jettisoned this year, replaced by a flimsy piece of paper, no bigger than a party flyer, with some website addresses on it. Painfully amateur videos (often with barely intelligible audio) replace both notes and the onstage interviews that were a founding pillar of the series’ concept. And this season, the repertoire selections by Mead composers-in-residence Mason Bates and Anna Clyne have seemed almost random.
The last installment of the 2011-12 season Monday night offered the usual hodgepodge of works by unconnected young composers with an extra layering of unneeded amplification and just unnecessary loudness. Why chamber pieces need to be amplified in the Harris I don’t know. And why pieces by Clyne (for live clarinet and electronic recording) and Ireland’s Irene Buckley needed to be played at ear-splitting volume might even be a legal matter.
The program opened with a refreshing change, “Sirens” (2009), an a cappella choral work by Bates, whom audiences know more for electro-acoustic pairings. But even here, only three of the piece’s six parts -- settings of a Renaissance Italian sonnet, Heine’s “Die Lorelei” and words from the Odyssey -- were offered. Conductor Duain Wolfe and the 12 members of the CSO Chorus were almost listless, compared to the tight and even haunting interpretation by the all-male Chanticleer, which commissioned the work.
Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Tres Homenajes: Compadrazgo” (2007), a piano quintet that celebrates Peruvian landscapes and people, inspired by a Latin idea of unspoken camaraderie, had moments, particularly the central adagio painting the life of an ecologically fragile coastal island. Buckley’s all-electronic (was it merely a recording itself?) “Rotation of the earth” (2010) and Clyne’s “Rapture” (2005) have a magnetism in recorded versions that seemed lacking here, especially with the volume settings. Having Brooklyn digital artist Joshue Ott make sketches projected on an overhead screen during these two works didn’t help the argument for their live performance, though clarinet soloist John Bruce Yeh’s playing was heroic.
By the time Brooklyn-based Sean Shepherd’s sextet “Lumens” (2005) wrapped up the bill, my ears were exhausted and my head hurt. Which was a shame because the piece presented an intriguing blend of lyrical lines woven together in complex ways. Cliff Colnot was the ever-steady conducting hand.
Next year’s series will have a work by a major composer on each concert and the addition of some Chicago voices. Let’s hope that everyone can still have fun if the music and the audiences are treated more seriously as well.
Davis extended as music director through 2020-2021
BY ANDREW PATNER
Lyric Opera of Chicago prides itself on its fiscal and institutional stability. So its report of a balanced budget for its 2011-12 season, delivered Monday at the company’s annual meeting, came as no shock.
More remarkable was the contract extension for music director Andrew Davis through 2020-2021, announced three years before his current contract expires.
Davis, 68, joined Lyric as music director in 2000.
In an interview, Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud called his collaboration with Davis “one of the great joys of my professional life.” At at time when many other opera houses, most notably New York’s Metropolitan Opera, have uncertain musical leadership, Freud acknowledged Lyric’s unusual position of having a resident music director and principal conductor who plays an active and collaborative role in planning and executing all aspects of the company’s artistic life. Davis’s wife, former singer Gianna Rolandi, directs Lyric’s highly respected Ryan Opera Center training program.
At the same time, Freud announced the start of a new strategic planning process “to generate new revenue streams from both operating and contributed income,” retain artistic strengths, increase community engagement and build "an even firmer financial foundation."
This season’s balanced budget was achieved in part by a planned tapping of $3.8 million from a non-renewable rainy-day fund.
But Lyric surpassed by $500,000 its $20.6 million fund-raising goal, which was $3.4 million more than last year’s, making it the second-highest level of contributed income in its history, after the 2004-05 50th anniversary season. The company has now been in the black for 24 of the past 25 years.
Lyric’s operating expenses of $57.4 million also were also up from last year, by 7 percent. Season capacity at the almost 3,600-seat Civic Opera House was down, from 91 percent to 88 percent, but ticket revenue for an eight-production season with four additional performances (72 regular presentations, two student-matinée performances, and one subscriber-appreciation concert) was up $1.3 million from last year to $25 million.
Lyric sold about the same number of subscription and individual tickets this season as last, 233,113 to 229,775. A women’s board wine auction was cited as one of the most successful fund-raising event in Lyric’s 57-year history.
Fully audited statements are to be issued in August.
Presiding over his first annual meeting as general director, Freud credited Lyric’s strong family of donors and board leadership, singling out president and CEO Kenneth G. Pigott, a Chicago investor who also chaired the search that led to Freud’s appointment. Freud also praised Pigott’s predecessor and current Lyric chairman, investment banker Richard P. Kiphart, for launching the rainy-day “Campaign for Excellence” fund.
But Freud also cautioned that “extraordinary additional marketing efforts were needed to reach our excellent individual ticket sales number this year.” He called it “the wave of the future” for the once almost advance-subscription-only company.
A Briton, Freud shares his predecessor William Mason’s and Lyric creative consultant soprano Renée Fleming’s enthusiasm for American musical theatre as a part of Lyric’s renewed mission. He pointed out that this season’s 13 performances of Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat sold at 95 percent capacity and that close to 50 percent of the single-ticket buyers were first-time Lyric attendees.
He also noted that in her new position, Fleming had already met her goals “to curate a world première, expand Lyric’s educational and community-engagement programming, foster new community partnerships, and initiate new marketing efforts.”
For 2012-2013, Lyric’s calendar will expand to include 16 post-season performances of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in May 2013. That will create a 14-month fiscal year ending June 30 rather than April 30. Total operating expenses for fiscal year 2013 are therefore projected to increase by more than $8 million to $65.7 million and the fund-raising goal will be hiked by $2.3 million to $22.9 million. Four performances of a ninth production, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire also will increase expenses but, along with Oklahoma!, will up ticket sales as well.
Pigott announced that union negotiations were proceeding as planned with the orchestra and the alliance representing the chorus, other singers, and dancers for contracts that expired April 30.
As Freud has in the past, Pigott offered unusually positive comments on labor relations: “Our union members are a major source of artistic excellence and pride to the company. I am optimistic that they will continue to partner with us to ensure a strong and viable financial future for Lyric.”
It is also the only interview that I know of with Studs where he discusses in detail his passion for opera and opera singers including Rosa Raisa, Lotte Lehmann, and "his" diva, Claudia Muzio.
Various events are planned for Wednesday May 16 and afterwards. I am hosting one at the Chicago History Museum where Studs was Distinguished Scholar in Residence fot 11 years after leaving WFMT. It will run from 6:30 to 8 p.m. or so and there is a nominal fee. Information is here.
Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Monday May 14, 2012
Maturity combines with magnetism in large venue success
Lang Lang performs before a near capacity crowd Saturday at the Civic Opera House. | Robert Kusel photo
BY ANDREW PATNER
“Are you going to the circus?” was the question I heard most often in the run-up to Saturday night’s piano recital by international classical superstar Lang Lang at the massive Civic Opera House.
A rather frenetic radio campaign by presenter Lyric Opera of Chicago touted the performer as a “dervish of the keyboard” and promised an overhead camera and live screen projection of “Lang Lang’s hands.” And a tendency to spectacle by the Chinese-born, Curtis Institute (Philadelphia) graduate that has run through his phenomenal, almost 13-year career was a reasonable cause for worry by some.
But those who have watched this young man closely -- he turns 30 just next month -- since his last-minute, major venue début at Ravinia in 1999 know that he is a performer of many parts. When he wants to focus his unique and even breathtaking technical ability and share his artistic investigations rather than crazy hairdos, onstage antics, or over-the-top programming or interpretation, he can hold an audience as few others can with playing that is remarkably musical.
Perhaps because he truly values his connection to Chicago -- not only his Ravinia début and early mentorship from Christoph Eschenbach but his later much tougher schooling from former Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Barenboim -- or perhaps because he knows how to value an event historically, it was clear from his first walking out on stage Saturday that he was in serious, though not solemn, mode.
Love him or roll your eyes at him, Lang Lang is all about sincerity. And in presenting major works of Bach, Schubert, and Chopin he was wanting both to demonstrate his desire to be accepted as an artist and to do something more. I think that he wanted to show the near capacity crowd of more than 3,500 and the critics and potential naysayers among them the power of an old-fashioned piano recital, the possibility of a single person on a stage and the silent attention of several thousand people creating a communal artistic event.
Amid uncertainty since the concert’s announcement last summer of how a piano recital would fit in to Lyric’s purpose and whether the large house could be sold, new general director Anthony Freud appeared down to the wire to be taking a big public relations and financial risk. The apparent box-office success instead would show him to be remarkably canny and forward-thinking. The evening took me back -- in feel, if not in every aspect of onstage execution -- to the excitement and involvement that would come from Vladimir Horowitz’s Sunday afternoon recitals at Orchestra Hall or Claudio Arrau’s rare appearances at the Auditorium Theatre. When an all-ages, all-backgrounds crowd -- certainly the largest representation of Chinese ticketholders at a major concert in Chicago -- sees how important a piano recital can be, all aspects of classical music benefit.
This is Lang Lang’s current standard recital program, and in its hold-the-shenanigans version it succeeded musically as well. His is big, old-fashioned Bach playing -- and you can put up all of the historically informed performance arguments you like without taking a thing away from a slow-movement Sarabande in the B-Flat Major Partita No. 1, BWV 825 that shows how he can combine complexity with a slowing down of time. His offering of Schubert’s last sonata, also in B-Flat Major, D. 960 was astonishingly well-balanced and flowing, none of the start-and-stop for effect that he can easily slip into.
Chopin’s second book of 12 Études, Op. 25, has been a Lang Lang calling card since he was a little boy. Here, in the last ones, we did get some theatricality at the piano bench, an occasional “Taxi!” gesture with a raised right hand, and even a once-trademark moony stare at the audience. And he certainly delivers no trace of Polish origin in these dauntingly difficult miniatures. But it’s hard to think of anyone else who makes their complexities seem so flowing and inevitable. While the screen projection could have been more logically focused and with fewer zooms in and out, it actually served to broadcast this fluidity and surely helped those sitting in the three tiers of balconies at the back of the house.
A gentle encore of the third étude from Chopin’s earlier Op. 10 set and a beyond virtuosic -- even operatic? -- rendition of Liszt’s “La Campanella” from his own Paganini Études were the alpha and omega encores on the American Steinway “D.” Lang Lang and Freud had a plan. And they pulled it off. Good for them.
BY ANDREW PATNER
The Ryan Opera Center of Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Civic Orchestra of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have parallel missions in training young professional classical musicians and giving them performance opportunities. But the two had never worked or appeared together until they present a “collaborative concert” Monday night at Orchestra Hall under Lyric Opera music director Andrew Davis.
The concert was a part of a continued coming out for the Ryan Center, one of the country’s top apprentice opportunities, along with those in San Francisco, Houston, and at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In addition to their supporting and other stage roles with the main company at the Civic Opera House, participants have sung often with the Grant Park Orchestra, and during Brian Dickie’s wise stewardship of Chicago Opera Theater, they became a regular source for major casting there.
But the Civic pairing marks a new opportunity. Though that orchestra has done some operatic material in the past (CSO principal trombone Jay Friedman led a remarkable Act 1 of Wagner’s Die Walküre back in 1998), as with many symphonic ensembles, opera hasn’t been a part of its daily bread.
The program Monday of full acts from Puccini’s La bohème and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, along with an orchestra-only opener of “The Dance of the Hours” from Ponchielli’s La gioconda, underscored the importance of such crossover and collaboration for the performers and provided great pleasure for the focused and appreciative audience.
The Civic had home court advantage and safety in numbers. Still, the continuing discipline and prep that the members get from their principal conductor Cliff Colnot was on constant display; this probably meant that Davis had an easier time working with the Civic on the support and flexibility that an opera orchestra must show regularly. Once again, the Civic demonstrated that it is as fine as many a regional full-time orchestra.
Ryan singers have one-year appointments, which are usually extended to two terms and can run to a maximum of three seasons. For the Ryan’s current 11 singers, the concert Monday was their first work as a unit, and they proved as balanced and coöperative a group as any yet fielded. There were no apparent superstars in the making, but producing them is not the central purpose of such programs.
Third-year bass Evan Boyer showed some of his best and most stylish work as Colline in the final act of Bohème and as Figaro in the second act of the Mozart. Second-year baritone Joseph Lim displayed attractive confidence and clarity, especially as Schaunard in Bohème, a role he will perform next season at Lyric as well. Second-year tenor Bernard Holcomb and first-year baritone Will Liverman were well-matched as bohemian best friends Rodolfo and Marcello.
As Mimi, Canadian first-year soprano Tracy Cantin made sure there were no dry eyes when her character dies. In the Mozart, Cantin as the Countess, second-year soprano Kiri Deonarine as Susanna, and mezzo Cecelia Hall in the trouser role of Cherubino were stand-outs. Meanwhile, Ryan Center director Gianna Rolandi contributed effective semi-staging, especially in the Puccini, and her young singers were absolutely game. Lyric’s William Billingham took the reduced but still essential harpsichord part in the Mozart.
Let’s hope that this is the beginning of a strong partnership.