Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Autumn Serenade: Boulez returns with weakened eyes yet strengthened vision

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Boulez conducts CSO in Mahler's Seventh for PBS/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Dennis Polkow

“I knew when I received ‘the call’ that something was out of the ordinary,” admits Pierre Boulez, who was on sabbatical from conducting in order to compose back in October when Chicago Symphony Orchestra management interrupted him with an SOS to step in for an ailing Riccardo Muti. “The second sentence,” he laughs, “was something like, ‘We know that you are free.’ ”

The irony was that Boulez himself was having health issues. “I had eye surgery for glaucoma that was completely unforeseen. I asked my doctors, ‘Can it wait?’ ‘No,’ they said because it was a difficult repair and they are now very happy with how it all went. I am not entirely happy with my eyes, but it is early yet. The left eye has already improved. I see, but not clearly.”

“But I did accept,” says Boulez, “for the team here, which is wonderful. And for Muti, who was at the end of his strength and was very anxious to go home to his doctor. I was in the same case with an ophthalmologist here, so I could understand him very well, wanting to get back home to his own doctor.”

Did Muti himself ever contact Boulez at any point along the process? “He was initially so de-energized, but I did get two very nice messages from him later on thanking me.” Read the rest of this entry »

Muti Musing: The CSO’s new maestro looks ahead to making music for Chicago

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By Dennis Polkow

The excitement—not only throughout the city, but across the world—is palpable: Riccardo Muti, the maestro of the moment, is coming to Chicago, this time in earnest and for good. The long limbo that began when Daniel Barenboim abruptly left his position as longtime Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director in May of 2006 is ending, at long last. Leninesque banners of Muti dot the city proclaiming “Festa Muti,” fall arts previews all spotlight his inaugural appearances, music critics are traversing continents to cover his concerts in various languages.

Muti is scheduled to arrive in Chicago September 15—well after press time—but the curiosity as to what the man himself is feeling as what is already being dubbed “the Muti era” actually begins here prompts us to reach out to the maestro by phone in his suburban Salzburg villa to find out. The rest of us may be excited, but Muti, as we have seen here now on numerous press announcements and conversations, can be as funny and mischievous as a schoolboy, having one Italian paper report on the constant one-liners of his last press conference here under the headline, “Un clown nommé Riccardo Muti.” Perhaps it is the mountain air—“It has been cloudy and rainy here for forty days”—but today, however, Muti is initially introspective and somber as he discusses what he calls “his last adventure” as music director. 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 »

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 »

Boulez for the Record

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By Dennis Polkow

Pierre Boulez is widely represented on recordings and videos both as a composer and as a conductor. Sony Classical has re-released virtually all of his earliest recordings in a special “Pierre Boulez Edition” released for his eighty-fifth birthday, but many of these recordings have long been supplanted. Deutsche Grammaphon is re-releasing many of its Boulez recordings in multi-disc sets this year and the CSO is even releasing an all-new “Boulez Conducts Stravinsky” disc later this month on its own CSO Resound label. The following very select list is a basic introduction to the remarkable art of Pierre Boulez:

Bartók: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3. Daniel Barenboim, soloist, Pierre Boulez and the BBC Symphony. Angel/EMI Classics. Many people thought the Bartók Piano concertos were just noise until this legendary 1970 recording forever made these works part of the standard repertory.

Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Four Orchestral Pieces, Op. 12. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez. Deutsche Grammaphon. This stellar recording swept the Grammy Awards and is the best of several Boulez/CSO recordings of the Hungarian master’s music. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Boulez, Bartók & Stravinsky/Boulez@85-Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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The only Boulez work that Boulez himself will conduct with the Chicago Symphony for his month-long eighty-fifth birthday celebration is his short “Livre pour cordes,” his 1969 orchestration of a string quartet (“Livre pour quatuor”) from 1948-1949, which will open this last Boulez CSO program before the celebration transfers to the University of Michigan and to Carnegie Hall in New York next week (Boulez was there last week as well, leading the Vienna Philharmonic with former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim at the piano).

But the real curiosity of this program is Boulez’ first-ever performances of the Bartók Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion, an orchestrated version of the Hungarian composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion that Bartók made at the suggestion of his music publisher for orchestras to perform and to have the composer and his wife appear as the soloists during Bartók’s last, lean years in exile in the United States. Boulez had never done the piece before, but being such an admirer of the music of Bartók, the piece made his birthday “wish list.” French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and his protégé Tamara Stefanovich will be the soloists and the CSO percussion section will also take the spotlight. Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago classical ups and downs in the oughts

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By Dennis Polkow6a00d83451c83e69e20120a54f9499970c-400wi

The “ought” or “aught” decade, as many are now calling it, has seen gargantuan changes to the landscape of classical music in Chicago.  A decade ago, Chicago still had two classical music radio stations, but the air space for WNIB became too valuable a commodity for the family that owned it to resist selling out; WFMT wasted no time in changing its motto from “Chicago’s fine arts station” to “Chicago’s classical station.”

Compact discs were still the media of choice a decade ago, and despite the fact that few downloading options exist that preserve the dynamic range necessary to faithfully reproduce the subtleties of the genre, more and more classical listeners are now embracing non-software listening options.

Chicago, which used to set the industry standard for classical recordings and Grammy Awards, saw a huge reduction in recording activity overall, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra having lost its recording contract under Daniel Barenboim. Pierre Boulez continued to make recordings here with the orchestra now and then for Deutsche Grammaphon, but the CSO became so fed up with the situation that it began releasing its own recordings on its own CSO Resound label, despite the fact that, by then, it had no music director. 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.

Leapfrog Maestro: Passing the baton at the Chicago Symphony, with holes

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By Dennis Polkow20080810elprdv_3

The history of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one that, like Swiss cheese, is full of holes. Founder Theodore Thomas usually gets his due, as does his longtime successor Frederick Stock. From there, however, the history gets hazy and even those with a passing knowledge of it often skip three music directors to Fritz Reiner, who made pioneering stereo recordings with the Orchestra that have yet to be surpassed, and then another skip of a music directorship altogether to Sir Georg Solti, who not only won more Grammy Awards than any other artist (thirty-two), but who was the first to take the CSO around the world and cement its reputation as “sine qua non” as Time magazine so famously labeled it in a cover story on the Solti-Chicago phenomenon. With nearly a year before Italian conductor Riccardo Muti officially becomes the CSO’s tenth music director in its nearly 120-year history, another clear gap is emerging in the CSO story: from Solti to Muti, skipping over the fourteen-year controversial tenure of Daniel Barenboim. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Muti Returns!/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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When the announcement was made in May of 2008 that Riccardo Muti had been made music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after a four-year search, I was quick to note in a Newcity cover story on the process and a “Chicago Tonight” appearance that the Austro-Germanic repertoire of Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss, i.e. the CSO’s bread-and-butter repertoire, was not particularly associated with Muti. “Anyone who knows me knows that I conduct music from the Baroque to modern, only the blind or deaf wouldn’t know this,” countered Muti a month later at his first area press conference. Not helping matters was that his only scheduled concerts for the following season—last year’s memorable performances of Verdi’s Requiem”—played to his best-known strength: Italian vocal music. Quite cleverly, Muti is addressing the repertoire issue head-on a year before his official tenure begins by offering two weeks of programs that are all Austro-Germanic: Mozart and Bruckner this week, and Brahms next. By performing a well-known Mozart symphony (No. 35, the “Haffner”) alongside an obscure early Bruckner symphony (No. 2), we should learn a lot about what to expect in the Muti era. Read the rest of this entry »