PostHeaderIcon My Two Best Holiday Presents

On this, the twelfth day of Christmas, as I look back over the past holiday season, I recall two superb performing arts events best. Each–a chamber music concert and a play–sparked a surge of holiday spirit with their gifts of melody, abundant humor and stellar artistry.

Brandenburg Concertos - Photo by Tristan CookThe first present came on December 18th at the Harris Theater as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performed J.S. Bach’s six glorious Brandenburg Concertos. The concert began with 11 ensemble musicians setting the mood with a bright, sparkling offering of Concerto No. 2 that was champagne bubbly.

And the entire evening continued in similar fashion until the final notes of the lyrical Concerto No. 4 sounded. While Bach’s concerti are almost 400 years old, the musicians played each piece with a vitality and freshness belying their venerable age. And the group’s variation among 20 musicians and their shifting configurations for each concerto resulted in dynamic variety and featured soloists that was musically effective. The large audience responded to the top-drawer performances very enthusiastically.

As I listened, feeling full of holiday cheer, I thought: Give me the Brandenburgs every Christmas and I’ll forego any future Christmas “Messiah” or another “Nutcracker”.  CMSLC’s co-artistic director Wu Han happily announced that Harris has engaged the ensemble for three more seasons into 2017. A smart move that will allow Chicagoans the chance to hear a group Chicago Magazine calls “a New York powerhouse”.

Their next appearance is on March 18 with a program entitled “French Revelations”, featuring works by Ravel, Debussy, Roussel and Tournier. For tickets and more information, go to www.harristheaterchicago.org.

Bravos are also in order for the Harris Theater , celebrating its 10th anniversary year. Over the past decade, this venue has broadened Chicago’s artistic horizon immeasurably. Its adventurous programming has brought international troupes, such as the upcoming Hamburg Ballet and Gidon Kremer’s Kramerata Baltica, that we would not have the chance to see otherwise and provided Chicago’s vibrant dance and music companies, like Music of the Baroque and Chicago Opera Theater, with an attractive and needed downtown home.

The other holiday treat came on the 4th day of Christmas. I sat in the Music Box Theatre watching a delightful, repeat screening from the National Theatre of London of  Alan Bennett’s play, “The Habit of Art”.

Like the Metropolitan Opera’s live presentations, the National Theater’s venture is a giant treat for theater lovers who want to catch top British actors and can’t easily hop a plane to London. The production quality of the screenings is excellent, though they are not in High Definition as the Met Opera telecasts and not precisely “live”, though they capture a live performance.

Bennett, in my mind, is a national treasure. He began his career not as a playwright but as a comic actor 50 years ago with fellow Oxford chums Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore in the celebrated revue, “Beyond the Fringe”. He has gained greater, and well-deserved, celebrity in the last 20 years with his hit plays, “The Madness of George III” and “The History Boys”.

“The Habit of Art” recalls an encounter at Oxford between poet, W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten (this is his centennial year). They were both great friends but had a falling-out years ago. Britten, afraid of failure, is hoping that Auden would help revise the libretto for his score of  Thomas Mann’s book, “Death in Venice”. Auden refuses unless he can make the connection between the homoeroticism of the book’s protagonist and Britten’s own sexual identity clear. Britten strongly rejects the idea.

That  encounter takes up about 30 minutes of the three-hour production. The rest of the time is filled with Auden’s wit, pronouncements and his own homosexual practices which are delivered with majestic aplomb by the late, great actor Richard Griffiths, who played the teacher in “The History Boys.”

Bennett ingeniously sets the play-within-a-play in a rehearsal room where the actors are learning their lines and flitting back and forth between the play and real life. It was a joy to watch and left me exhilarated.  The NTL’s next live productions at the Music Box are Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” later this month and “The War Horse” in February. Check www.ntlive.com for a full schedule of upcoming screenings.

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