At the Illinois Youth Center/Photo: Todd Rosenberg
By Dennis Polkow
The Gospel of Matthew states, “I was in prison, and you visited me.” It’s an adage Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti takes very seriously. He has visited prison a number of times in his native Italy, and during the first days of his inaugural season last year as music director it was a top priority for him.
“The experience was wonderful, fantastic,” Muti said of his first visit to the Illinois Youth Center in west suburban Warrenville, an incarceration facility for female juveniles, where he gave a concert and first visited with the inmates in September of 2010. Read the rest of this entry »
Because New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa was a protégée of legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Sir Georg Solti, Chicago has heard this once-reigning diva at virtually every stage of her career. That included a gala “farewell” two years ago with the orchestra so long associated with her. As reported then, no one says it’s over until the diva says it’s over, and in this case, since Te Kanawa is still in superb voice, she is giving us something as an additional “farewell” that was a real rarity when she was in her prime: an intimate recital.
Among the highlights of Te Kanawa’s many performances here was the glorious Mahler Fourth that she performed and recorded here under Solti and the CSO, and no less than two performances of Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello,” –one for Solti’s seventieth birthday gala in 1987 with Placido Domingo, another alongside for the first and only time that Luciano Pavarotti ever sang the role for Solti’s own “farewell” performances as CSO music director in 1991, where Te Kanawa sat onstage traumatized by the fact that Pavarotti was attempting to camouflage eating entire chickens onstage when he wasn’t singing and was tossing the chicken bones on the floor next to her. But hey, while Te Kanawa was rehearsing for the world premiere of “Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio” at Liverpool Cathedral, she freaked out the former Beatle when she began actually scolding tourists who were in her line of sight yards away, asking them to “move along” as if she owned the place. Late and mischievous tenor Jerry Hadley thought the whole thing was hysterical and was doing his best to keep a straight face. Ah yes, they don’t make divas like this anymore. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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 »
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 »
P.D.Q. Bach is the brainchild of “Professor” Peter Schickele, who has made a forty-five-year plus comedy career out of “discovering lost” works of this supposedly twenty-first and illegitimate son of Johann Sebastian Bach. Being the funniest and most popular music satirist since Spike Jones and Victor Borge has been both a curse and a blessing for Schickele, a contemporary composer and broadcaster in his own right, whose own notoriety has been so eclipsed by his comic genius that it has been nine long years since you could see Schickele perform in Chicago as the good Professor that introduces lost works by the faux composer.
What remains remarkable about Schickele is that when he performs as an ambassador for P.D.Q. Bach, he can be appreciated on every level: as a physical and slapstick comedian, even a young child will find him funny. And yet, the most sophisticated classical music lover will find immense cerebral humor by his cross-fertilizations of high art with unexpected lowbrow and bawdy tastelessness along with his lampooning of everything held sacred in a world that takes itself far too seriously. And yet through the whole thing, Schickele plays it all so credibly, so straight, that there is always the possibility of someone taking it all in as is. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Ken Carl
By Dennis Polkow
“The news here is that no music director has been appointed yet,” says Chicago Sinfonietta founder and music director Paul Freeman, anticipating curiosity about whether or not there is an end in sight to an ongoing and speculative process. “In other words,” he laughs, “I’m still here.”
Freeman, 74, announced his retirement in March of 2009, in part so that he could remain actively involved with the orchestra that he founded and has so carefully nurtured and tendered for more than two decades during the process of locating his successor.
“I realize that there is a time to be born—and I don’t want to say the other—but after nearly twenty-five years, everybody needs a new breath. I won’t say a breath of fresh air, but a new breath,” says Freeman. “This is one of the elements that helped this orchestra develop as an artistic institution, that we’ve kept everything fresh and new. I am not saying that I feel that the relationship between the orchestra and myself has ended, I don’t feel that way: I still like the involvement. But there comes a time when you have to think of securing the future.” Read the rest of this entry »
Years ago when I asked a former Chicago Symphony Orchestra manager why we didn’t hear more early music conductors leading the CSO, I was told that most had poor baton technique. Of course, given that the stand-up conductor with a baton was a late innovation during the eras that constitute early music, many early music conductors conducted—as was often true then—within the ensemble itself.
For Trevor Pinnock, the founder of the celebrated and pioneering British early music ensemble the English Concert, that often meant doing so from the harpsichord. There will be no harpsichord at this week’s CSO concerts, where Pinnock will make his long overdue CSO debut, though he has been to Chicago before with the English Concert and the experience was indeed a memorable one.
This Haydn-heavy program includes the Overture to his opera “The Desert Island” and the Cello Concerto, with Russian cellist Pavel Gomziakov also making his CSO debut, along with Fauré’s orchestral suite “Masques et bergamasques” and the monumental penultimate Mozart Symphony No. 40 in g minor, K. 550. (Dennis Polkow)
April 29, 30, May 1 at 8pm; May 4, 7:30pm, Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, (312) 294-3000.
By Dennis Polkow
Sting, “If On a Winter’s Night” (Deutshe Grammaphon)
Every now and then, a recording artist comes along and completely redefines what a Christmas album is in surprising and delightful ways. Sting’s Christmas album is not only his best new album in a long, long while, but a Christmas record that is good enough to put on any time of the year. The carols chosen tend to be somber, introspective and refreshingly under-produced, usually with Sting’s own voice and simple acoustic accompaniment. Sting claims he is an agnostic, but you would never know from his poignant performances of such traditional holiday fare as “Gabriel’s Message” and the “Cherry Tree Carol.” But the album also features other winter-themed offerings that celebrate the stark beauty of barrenness of the season, such as songs by British baroque composer Henry Purcell about cold and ice, the heartbreaking finale of Schubert’s song cycle of winter and lost love “Winterreise,” Celtic folksongs that include a Halloween offering, and even originals such as Sting’s own setting of Robert Louis’ Stevenson’s “Christmas at Sea” and his own wintry lyrics to the melody of a Bach Cello Suite.
Aretha Franklin, “This Christmas” (DMI Records)
This is Aretha’s first-ever Christmas album, believe it or not (2006’s “Joy to the World” was a record-company compilation of carols and sacred songs from throughout her career), and given the great care that was obviously taken with it, you can tell this is something that has been in the back of her mind for a long, long time. The virtuosity here is stunning and will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, as Aretha tends to take simple familiar songs and vocalize on many of them with “too many notes,” as the emperor told Mozart. But it’s the feeling underlying the notes that makes the grandest impression and the fact that there is so much heart here. There are carols, gospel songs, originals and spoken sections where Aretha offers up family vignettes and hopes. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »