Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Preview: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Mahler Ninth Symphony

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Gustav Mahler


In 1907, composer Gustav Mahler was diagnosed with an infection of the inner lining of the heart. He died four years later, 100 years ago last month, at the age of fifty. The Mahler death centennial is being commemorated throughout 2011 across the music world, including at this week’s season-finale concerts of the CSO.

Death was a constant companion to Mahler throughout his short life. The tavern owned by his father was adjacent to a funeral parlor and marches and dirges were his childhood aural wallpaper. In addition to the constant funeral processions in and out of the compound which Mahler’s music would often go on to emulate, Mahler lost eight of his fourteen siblings before reaching adulthood.

When Mahler set to work on the song cycle “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”) set to haunting poems of Friedrich Rückert, his oldest daughter died in what his wife Alma took as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This capped a series of unrelenting tragedies for the composer that included the diagnosis of his fatal heart condition which actually drove Mahler to work harder rather than rest, in order to finish as much work as possible before his untimely demise.

Mahler composed the orchestral song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”) after his mammoth Eighth Symphony (“of a Thousand”) and subtitled the work a symphony. However, given that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a Ninth Symphony, he superstitiously refused to place that ominous number—or any number—on the work and felt that he could somehow cheat 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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Top 5 of Everything 2010: Music

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Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Millennium Park/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Top 5 Classical Concerts
Riccardo Muti Inaugural Concert at Millennium Park, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Berlioz Episode in the Life of an Artist, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven Festival, Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Boulez@85, MusicNOW
Bach Christmas Oratorio, Jane Glover and Music of the Baroque Orchestra and Chorus
—Dennis Polkow

Top 5 Albums
Esperanza Spalding, “Chamber Music Society” (Telarc)
Stanley Clarke, “The Stanley Clarke Band” (Heads Up)
Os Paralamas do Sucesso, “Brasil Afora” (EMI Latin)
Alex Cuba, “Alex Cuba”
Sheryl Crow, “100 Miles from Memphis”
—Ernest Barteldes

Top 5 Albums
The National, “High Violet” (4AD)
Sun Kil Moon, “Admiral Fell Promises” (Caldo Verde)
Frightened Rabbit, “The Winter of Mixed Drinks” (Fat Cat)
Twin Shadow, “Forget” (Red General Catalog)
Vampire Weekend, “Contra” (XL)
—Tom Lynch

Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Complete Beethoven Concertos/Jorge Federico Osorio & Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Jorge Federico Osorio


Last month’s downtown Beethoven Festival that had departing CSO principal conductor Bernard Haitink traversing all nine of the Beethoven symphonies across three weeks of concerts gets a magnificent and compact summer cadenza at Ravinia with a rare and wonderful opportunity to experience all five Beethoven piano concertos across two consecutive concerts.

Mexican-born pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, who has long made Highland Park his home but who had to prove himself the world over before being taken seriously as a rank concretizer  of choice here will be the soloist, a coup for all involved. Ravinia is loosely attempting to tie in the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence to Osorio’s heritage, but an opportunity to hear a complete Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle with a pianist of Osorio’s caliber needs no such gimmickry and is a major musical statement in and of itself.

Mozart is often credited with creating the piano concerto as we know it, but it was Beethoven who not only gave the orchestra an expanded and eventually a role equal to that of the soloist, but who made the piano concerto a more personal vehicle of self-expression and emotion, marking the transition from Classicism to Romanticism. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Wagner Ring Highlights/Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia

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John Treleaven as Siegfried (Courtesy of L.A. Opera)


With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s downtown Beethoven Festival going late into June, Ravinia has had to make due for its first weeks of programming without its longtime premier partner. In the past when this has happened, the North Shore Festival has experimented with residencies of other orchestras and chamber groups to pick up the slack, but this year classical programming gave way primarily to pop and jazz offerings instead for those opening weeks.

With the end of the Beethoven Festival and departing principal conductor Bernard Haitink’s moving farewell where after all of the PR rhetoric and awards were said and done, he characteristically and humbly chose to thank Beethoven “who had such a miserable life and gave us so many wondrous masterpieces.”

Meanwhile, Ravinia music director James Conlon is not to be outdone in his opening CSO summer concerts and is including a highlights program of the Los Angeles Opera’s first-ever Wagner “Ring” Cycle that he will finish conducting mere days before arriving here and which will feature soprano Christine Brewer as Brünnhilde and John Treleaven as Siegfried. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Beethoven Ninth Symphony/Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus

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As Bernard Haitink brings the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s three-week Beethoven Festival and his four-year principal conductorship to a close this weekend with performances of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, it is fascinating to note how much this music has been associated with historical events in modern times, for better and for worse, on all sides of the political spectrum.

The “Ode to Joy” finale of the piece, which speaks of the brotherhood of man to poetry of Schiller, continues to serve as the official Anthem of the European Union. Yet the same piece was also a favorite of Adolf Hitler’s, and there were frequent performances of the entire work with the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler to mark special Nazi celebrations, such as the Führer’s birthday. Almost as quickly, once the Allies had defeated the Nazis and were occupying Germany, performances of the Ninth were used to help restore hope for German civilians. A young and future CSO music director Georg Solti—himself a refugee during the war in Switzerland—led a performance sponsored by the American Army in war-torn Munich that was broadcast across Europe in the months after the war. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Beethoven Festival III & IV/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Those lucky enough to have heard the debut concerts of the CSO’s Beethoven Festival last week heard something very special indeed as the orchestra offered some of its best playing for outgoing CSO principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink of his entire tenure here. Particularly gratifying, whether by accident or design, was the noticeable absence of some of the most conspicuous principal players who have routinely blighted concerts under the Haitink era as their skills have deteriorated. Haitink uses a mid-sized orchestra and offers some surprising tempos, much more moderate than you might expect for some of the uptempo movements and brisk, indeed, sometimes almost breakneck, during moderate and slow movements.

This week Haitink and the CSO turn their attention to two groups of symphonies: Nos. 4 and 6, the “Pastoral,” and Nos. 1 and 7. Beethoven’s First Symphony has often been described as “Haydnesque,” and while it is the most conventional of his symphonies, from its opening chords we are in a different sound world than the symphonies of Haydn, or Mozart, for that matter. It is a shame that we are hearing it so late in the cycle where its full impact is diminished; it would have made far more sense to present Symphonies 1 and 3 in the first program, 2 and 5 in the second, and then 4 and 6, which are being paired together, and then 8 and 7, with the Ninth on its own, as it will be next week. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Beethoven Festival II/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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The second program in Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s traversal of all nine of the symphonies of Beethoven pairs the less familiar Symphony No. 2 with the iconic Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica,” a work that is often cited as making the shift from eighteenth-century Classicism to nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Yet there is already a whiff of Beethoven’s musical revolution in the smaller-scale Second Symphony, even if it came to its full fruition in the large-scale Third Symphony, an avant-garde work that occupied Beethoven for five years and indeed broke every convention of the Classical era. Critics and audiences did not know what to make of a work that, for starters, was more than twice the length of any symphony of Haydn and Mozart. But its real revolution is what Beethoven did with the stalwart sonata form that had so dominated the era, the ABA form of exposition, development and recapitulation which in Beethoven’s hands are blown up and the pieces sometimes scattered almost beyond recognition. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Beethoven Festival I/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Late CSO music director Sir Georg Solti used to say that a conductor should ideally record three Beethoven symphony cycles during his career: once as a young man, again at middle age and another in old age. Now an octogenarian, CSO principal conductor Bernard Haitink has already made two complete sets of Beethoven symphonies, the set from his years as music director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra made in the 1970s documenting his “middle age” accounts, if we go by Solti’s designations, and another live set made with the London Symphony Orchestra five years ago documents Haitink’s approach at age 75.

Assuming that the CSO wants to release live recordings of the complete Beethoven cycle that Haitink is performing with the Orchestra over the next couple of weeks, what should we consider that set? Post-old age?  Are Haitink’s interpretations likely to be significantly different than a mere five years ago? I am guessing probably not, and thus it comes down to the difference in orchestras. Read the rest of this entry »

Boulez Future: Music’s greatest living figure looks ahead

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By Dennis Polkow

Boulez.  The radical and outspoken enfant terrible who once advocated that concert halls and opera houses should be burnt to the ground as dead monuments to an irrelevant past, but who ended up being known as one of the all-time great conductors and interpreters of that past.

Boulez.  The name of the leading twelve-tone composer of his generation, the man who once advocated that serialism would become “the only musical direction of the future,” and yet who later completely abandoned it as a compositional method.

Boulez.  The frustrated artist who vowed that he would never come back to an artistic position in his native France, and yet who returned to Paris to found and lead the world’s premier experimental music research center at the Centre Pompidou for a decade and a half.

Boulez.  The defiant and arrogant lion in Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” who once attacked all established systems, but who is today as diplomatic and subdued as a pussycat and who has come to epitomize the very musical establishment he once so sharply opposed.

On the surface, at least, it would seem that Pierre Boulez is a man of considerable contradiction.  Rather, Boulez is a man of genuine paradox: a living parable and a walking twentieth-century monument.

Our greatest living figure in music, Boulez is widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most significant and innovative composers.  But there is also Boulez the conductor, the champion of new music, of technology to expand music materials, the teacher, guru to rock stars, author and lecturer of international renown; in short, a man who helped reshape the course of music after World War II on a myriad of levels. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Haitink Bruckner Ninth

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg


Bruckner was a favorite composer of the two most recent CSO music directors, Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim, both of whom recorded complete Bruckner symphony sets with the orchestra. By contrast, music director designate Riccardo Muti has performed few Bruckner symphonies over his long career, although the early Bruckner Second, which he did offer in his fall residency here, is a particular specialty and his performances of the piece were indeed revelatory. Muti has never traversed the later and longer Bruckner symphonies, although these have long been specialties of Bernard Haitink and, as such, this week’s partnership of the CSO and Haitink in Bruckner’s last and unfinished Ninth Symphony should be a particular highlight of the 2009-10 season. Although Muti recently expressed that he wanted to keep Haitink and Boulez as regular guest conductors during his tenure here, it is by no means certain what repertoire will be left to them, so this could be a one-shot repertoire deal for Haitink and the CSO.  Opening the concert will be Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante with CSO co-concertmaster Robert Chen, principal oboist Eugene Izotov, principal bassoonist David McGill and principal cellist John Sharp.  (Dennis Polkow)

8pm November 12, 1:30pm November 13, 8pm November 14, Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan. $18-$199.