Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Peace of Mind: World Orchestra Celebrates Founder Sir Georg Solti’s Centennial

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Sir Georg Solti

By Dennis Polkow

When former Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Sir Georg Solti turned eighty in 1992, the British Royal Family threw a surprise birthday party for the legendary conductor at Buckingham Palace. The highlight of the bash was a performance by a chamber orchestra made up of players from all over the world from various orchestras that Solti had conducted, including the CSO.

Solti was visibly moved and wondered aloud at the gathering, “Why, if it were possible for musicians from various countries to come together in peace and harmony, why couldn’t politicians from various countries do the same?”

That hope gave birth to the extraordinary idea: creating a World Orchestra for Peace to perform for a special concert made up of world leaders to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations in Geneva in July of 1995.

Solti himself made a list of the best players across the world’s orchestras to participate and much to his amazement, every invitation was accepted. That first concert was conducted by Solti and was broadcast live via satellite radio as well as recorded for television broadcast and was an enormous success. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Symphony Ball/Riccardo Muti & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Anne-Sophie Mutter conductorless at the 2010 Symphony Ball/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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The last time the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike in 1991, it took three weeks before a new contract was negotiated. If last Saturday’s strike had lasted three weeks, the orchestra would have lost its Thursday night performance in Ann Arbor, Michigan, its tour to Mexico, its opening of Carnegie Hall, et al, as well as Saturday night’s Symphony Ball. And at what point would a homesick Italian music director without an orchestra to make music with simply head home? Thankfully, these are questions that will remain unanswered as both sides, with the help of a federal mediator, did manage to come to an agreement Monday night that was ratified by the players Tuesday morning and subsequently expected to be approved by the CSO board. Read the rest of this entry »

How He Conducts His Life: The CSO music director discusses “the accident,” mortality and the public and private Muti

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Riccardo Muti shot March 30, 2011 in his dressing room at Orchestra Hall. Photo credit: Jim Newberry.

By Dennis Polkow

Even from across the hall, Riccardo Muti is beaming. He has just completed his first Chicago Symphony Orchestra rehearsal since what Muti himself has come to call “the accident,” and players and music director alike are virtually euphoric.

CSO president Deborah Rutter looks the happiest I have seen her since Muti arrived here last fall. One longtime player passing by whispers to me, “We are on cloud nine.” If things kept going the way they were before Muti, he adds, “this orchestra would have been in ruins.” Concertmaster Robert Chen walks by flashing an ear-to-ear smile.

Muti is childlike and playful enough that he even warmly greets me, a reporter, by placing his hands on my cheeks and patting them much as Neapolitans do to young children. Even returning to the rigors of doing interviews is an apparent joy to a man who has been through as much convalescing as Muti has since his February 3 collapse during a rehearsal, and the facial injuries and surgery and pacemaker implementation that resulted.

As we walk back together to Muti’s dressing room in the basement of Symphony Center, CSO artists assistant Pietro Fiumara—who as a native Italian speaker and confidant so carefully stayed by Muti’s side during his hospitalization—is cheerfully offering us cappuccinos. 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: Kiri Te Kanawa Farewell Recital/Ravinia

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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 »

Preview: A Child of Our Time/Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus

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Sir Michael Tippett

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British composer Sir Michael Tippett used to be a regular visitor to Chicago back in the days when then-Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Sir Georg Solti would champion and perform his music and even managed to commission a piece from him, a 1991 CSO centennial work called “Byzantium” which the world-premiere forces even recorded.

Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis picked up the Tippett mantle since arriving here in 2000, spearheading the Chicago premiere of Tippett’s opera “The Midsummer Marriage,” a work ignored during Lyric’s longtime “Toward the 21st Century” initiative and which was given a 2005 premiere so long overdue that its composer, who died in 1998 at the age of 93, was no longer alive to experience it. The difficulties in mounting that production were so immense that Lyric lost its lead tenor and its director, none other than Sir Peter Hall, along the way. 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 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 »

Preview: Bach’s St. John Passion/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chamber Music, Classical, Orchestral, Vocal Music 3 Comments »

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When he died suddenly of a heart attack while on vacation in early September, 1997, Sir Georg Solti had a score to Bach’s “St. John Passion” at his bedside. The 84-year-old music director emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to conduct the piece for the first time ever in Europe and had spoken openly of his hope to subsequently do it with “his orchestra” here in Chicago. While the CSO had performed the “St. Matthew Passion” under Solti on three occasions during his long music directorship—including making a Grammy Award-winning recording of the work—neither Solti nor the CSO ever got around to the “St. John Passion.”  Until now. This week marks the first-ever CSO performances of the “St. John Passion,” at long last.

Johann Sebastian Bach is attributed with writing five Passions to correspond to his five annual sets of church cantatas.  Of these, two have been entirely lost, and the “St. Luke Passion” bearing Bach’s name is the work of a Bach student or minor contemporary. This leaves only the “St. John Passion” and the “St. Matthew Passion,” two of the supreme glories of Western music. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Boulez@85-Bluebeard’s Castle/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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RECOMMENDEDBela+Bartok+Bartok+bewerkt

As odd a paradox as it may be, Pierre Boulez, that musical maverick and innovative anarchist forever associated with everything that is young, brash and new, will turn 85 on March 26.  That event is being celebrated worldwide all year long but nowhere as intensely in Chicago, where Boulez remains Conductor Emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and where he served as Principal Guest Conductor for more than a decade.

Music of Bartók was spotlighted at Boulez’ first-ever appearances with the CSO, back in 1969, the occasion of another historic debut, Daniel Barenboim as piano soloist for two Bartók piano concertos. Bartók once again takes center stage as the centerpiece of the first in a month of special CSO concerts in Chicago and Carnegie Hall called “Boulez@85” where the Hungarian composer’s only opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle,” will be presented in concert form.

Boulez considers the one-act opera one of the most important ever written, but even he has been unable to perform in it a staged version, despite his best efforts. “There is perhaps no staging to compete with the music,” he concedes. “Anything that you do to ‘show’ the content behind each of the seven doors of the castle somehow seems trivial or distracting compared with the music itself.” Read the rest of this entry »