Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Preview: Riccardo Muti & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Spring Season

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Riccardo Muti rehearsing Civic Orchestra, April 2013, Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti rehearsing Civic Orchestra, April 2013, Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti’s spring residency goes for two weeks this season, but what a jam-packed and extraordinary period of music-making it looks to be. This first week program includes pianist/conductor Mitsuko Uchida, who last week made her annual Chicago Symphony Orchestra appearance conducting from the piano. Not easy to conduct Robert Schumann from the piano, however, so Muti will be her collaborator for the Schumann Piano Concerto. The centerpiece of the program will be the Schubert “Great” Ninth Symphony, a work that Schumann championed posthumously after Schubert’s death at age thirty-one.

Muti’s idea of a day off that first weekend is to lead the Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra of the CSO that is marking its ninety-fifth anniversary this season, in an open rehearsal of movements from Prokofiev’s ballet suites for “Romeo and Juliet” on Sunday evening. This is a favorite piece of Muti’s and he has a lot to say about how various movements should sound, particularly as they relate to the emotions reflected in Shakespeare’s narrative. To watch him do so with an attentive audience of young musicians working to give him what he asks for is to experience a passing of the torch of the highest order. It also offers a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on the rehearsal techniques of one of the great conductors set to a basic level, a rare and wonderful deconstruction of the art of conducting. Tickets are free but must be ordered and demand is always high. Read the rest of this entry »

Dialogue: Muti on Schubert and the Band Chicago

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By Dennis Polkowfranz-schubert

It is a subzero late Tuesday afternoon and Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have just completed the first day’s rehearsal of Sollima’s Double Cello Concerto. (The piece would receive its world premiere later in the week.) The composer, also a soloist in the piece, is backstage, as is cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As are members of the rock group Chicago, about to complete their first-ever two-concert run with the CSO, conducted by Richard Kaufman.

Despite this odd musical assemblage, inside Muti’s office, the discussion is on his decision to place a CSO spotlight on Schubert for the 2014 season. With so much Verdi and some Wagner having been done by the Chicago Symphony for both composers’ bicentennial years in 2013, it may seem a bit odd that 2014 brings a CSO focus on Schubert despite there being no round-number anniversary.

“You know, generally I don’t like anniversaries,” says Muti, pouring a bottle of sparkling coffee, which he also offers to his quizzical guest. “If it’s a very famous composer, such as Verdi or Wagner, they are performed anyway. The problem with the lesser-known composers is that you have an anniversary and then forget about them the rest of the time. Anniversaries can be important when the performances add something to the comprehension of the composer or when musicologists write something interesting about them.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Mahler Ninth & Stravinsky “Elegy for JFK”/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Photo: Mahler Death Mask

Photo: Mahler Death Mask

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After his mammoth Eighth Symphony, Mahler composed “Das Lied von der Erde” and originally subtitled it a symphony. But given that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a Ninth Symphony, Mahler superstitiously refused to place that ominous number on the work and felt that he had somehow cheated fate as a result.

Ironically, Mahler would go on to write a Ninth, and even an un-orchestrated Tenth Symphony, which he would not live to complete. While “Das Lied” is really more of an orchestral song cycle than a symphony, the symphony that Mahler did complete after “Das Lied” and actually did affix the fateful number “Nine” to reflects a resignation of the acceptance of death despite enjoying every last moment of life. The Ninth is an immensely personal statement, as the composer had recently lost a daughter and had himself been recently diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. Like the finale of “Das Lied,” the finale of the massive, conflicted and personal journey of the Ninth fades into existential nothingness and remains a pivotal symphonic statement, culminating as it does the Romantic era of the nineteenth century as well as serving as a precursor of the twentieth-century music that would follow. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Reviews: New Takes on Holiday Classics

Big Band, Holiday Music, Jazz, Orchestral, Pop, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »

nnennafreelonandjohnbrowIt’s that time of year again, when artists of pretty much every genre do everything possible to grab your attention with new recordings of holiday classics. From major stars like Kelly Clarkson to obscure indie bands—everybody wants a piece of the holiday action. Last year, my roundup contained quite a few compilations and original releases, but this time I will keep it short and point out two favorites that came across my desk during this joyous season.

First on the list is Grammy-nominated jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon, whose “Christmas” collection features familiar favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” but man, does she swing those tunes, freely improvising around the melodies with the help of the John Brown Big Band, who expertly add their own nuanced grooves. This is not your traditional singer-backed-by-a-big-band disc. In tracks like “Spiritual Medley,” the arrangements are quite subtle, while things get hot with Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” and even “Silent Night,” is subjected to a Gospel treatment. The album closes with a New Orleans take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” that immediately gets your feet tapping. Read the rest of this entry »

Britten Centennial Culmination: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Performs “War Requiem”

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Conductor Charles Dutoit

Conductor Charles Dutoit

Surprisingly, the centennial anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, which is November 22, has received nary a nod from either Lyric Opera or Chicago Opera Theater. That is particularly odd given that Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis is one of Britten’s most stalwart ambassadors and also how paramount Britten figured in during former general director Brian Dickie’s tenure at COT.

Nonetheless, Britten has been celebrated by many other local institutions this fall; most notably, there have been two full-blown Britten festivals concentrating on his chamber music.That leaves the single most important local Britten centennial event to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is performing his large-scale “War Requiem” this week. Given the forces involved, this is not a work very often performed. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Tales From The Grand Bazaar” by Bombay Dub Orchestra

DJ, Drum 'n' Bass, Electronic/Dance, Indian Classical, Orchestral, Record Reviews, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »

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On their sixth musical foray, the duo formed by Garry Hughes and Andrew T. Mackay emerge with their trademark mix of electronica, orchestra and Indian sounds. During their career they have collaborated with luminaries like percussionist/composer Karsh Kale (who co-produced one of their earlier efforts) and sitarist Anoushka Shankar, all the while maintaining a tendency to focus on a dance-floor-friendly format.

This time around, they lean toward a more diverse direction by incorporating Asian-centric grooves. For instance, “Blue Mosaic” features wordless vocals and the koto, a traditional Japanese instrument, while “City of Amber” contains a fierce drum ‘n’ bass groove, much to the delight of DJs and remixers. Read the rest of this entry »

Work in Progress: Muti Reveals the Once and Future Verdi, Step-by-Step

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Chorus soloist rehearsal/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Chorus soloist rehearsal/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Dennis Polkow

“Buon giorno,” says a sweater-clad Riccardo Muti, seated on his podium at an eerily empty Symphony Center, to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra clad in street clothes assembled for its first rehearsal of Verdi’s “Macbeth.”

“This is a great joy for me, since Verdi is the only composer that I can conduct,” Muti says, poking fun at his reputation as Verdi’s greatest living interpreter. The orchestra laughs.

“Seriously, you gave me the best ‘Otello’ I have ever done from an orchestral point of view,” Muti adds, referencing the 2011 Muti-led CSO performances of one of Verdi’s last operas that like “Macbeth,” is also based on Shakespeare and that has just been released on the CSO Resound label.

“You may think that because ‘Macbeth’ is earlier that it is less difficult music, but it’s not. This work was very ahead of its time. In fact, the operas to follow will be a step back.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Mozart, Vivaldi and Verdi/Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

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Photo: Anne Ryan

Photo: Anne Ryan

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This is the third and final week of Riccardo Muti’s busy summer residency and the final week of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2012-13 season. As we have come to expect, Muti has been leading extraordinary performances with the CSO, including a rare and wonderful foray into Wagner last week.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the transition from the first week of Muti’s June residency, which featured principal horn Dale Clevenger struggling with the high horn parts of the Haydn “Maria Theresa” Symphony, to last week’s concerts, which featured assistant principal horn Daniel Gingrich taking over the horn calls for “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” was that Clevenger decided to retire a couple of weeks early in unannounced last appearances. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Wagner, Beethoven and Bruckner/Riccardo Muti & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Rudolf Buchbinder/Photo: Marco Borggreve

Rudolf Buchbinder/Photo: Marco Borggreve

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Riccardo Muti’s distaste for Wagner is widely known, but even he cannot ignore the fact that the influential composer that devotees refer to as simply “The Master” had his 200th birthday on May 22.

As such, Muti is performing two orchestral interludes of Wagner at this week’s concerts, “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” performed as part of the Rivers Festival, and recently added to the announced program, “Siegfried’s Funeral March.”

Thankfully, Muti has a higher opinion of Bruckner, the composer of whom it is often said that if Wagner were to have written symphonies, they would have sounded like Bruckner. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Haydn, Martinu and Scriabin/Riccardo Muti & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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That Riccardo Muti is one of Scriabin’s greatest champions is no surprise: his recordings of the complete symphonies and tone poems of Scriabin when he was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra stand as one of his most significant recording projects and Muti remains unparalleled in this repertoire.

Performing Scriabin’s Third Symphony, “The Divine Poem,” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the most anticipated performances of the 2012-13 season, which Muti returns to this week to conclude with three weeks of concerts.

Even more curious is Muti’s first foray into the music of Martinu, a composer he has never conducted before. This week’s performances of the Martinu Oboe Concerto is the outgrowth of Muti wanting to perform a work with Chicago Symphony principal oboist Eugene Izotov, “a great oboe player,” says Muti, and the Martinu Oboe Concerto was Izotov’s choice. “So, I expand my repertoire,” says Muti. Read the rest of this entry »