Archive for the ‘Music – Classical’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Concert Produces Own Lalla Vibe

What a difference the right place makes! That insight was proven true once again last Saturday evening (August 5) at the Harris Theater of Music and Dance by the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. Forced to move indoors due to the Lallapolooza din in Grant Park, the move proved a true blessing in disguise.

Carlos Kalmar

Carlos Kalmar

Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra’s guiding light since 2000, programmed a particularly rich program that capitalized on the move. Each half opened with a stirring piece, Hindemith’s “Concert Music for Strings and Brass” and Mendelssohn’s “Calm Seas and Prosperous Voyage”. The brass forces were prominently featured and delivered ringing sounds.

The concert featured two showstoppers: Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” and Richard Strauss‘ “Oboe Concerto”. I have heard the Debussy many times and admired both the level of orchestral playing and Kalmar’s refined shaping and pacing of the score. The orchestra’s sections were in sync and blended perfectly.

Moving the concert indoors revealed what an acoustic jewel the Harris is. I reveled in the hall’s fine sound separation so that the strings, winds, brass and percussion elements all could be heard distinctly. It made me realize how dry Orchestra Hall’s sound is in comparison and does the orchestra a disservice. And it was superior to the Pritzker Pavilion’s more dispersed sound outdoors.


Francois Leleux

Francois Leleux

For me, the evening’s highlight was Strauss’ sublime concerto. The featured soloist, Francois Leleux, played the piece with deep feeling. I’d never heard the composition live but this struck me as a definitive performance. (Ray Still, the Chicago Symphony’s famed former oboist, delivers the best performance on disc.)  Leleux put his whole body into the playing which made me close my eyes at times to cut out his movements onstage. But nothing detracted from his evident mastery and Kalmar’s expert accompaniment. Leleux received a well-deserved standing ovation. My friend and I exited the concert feeling uplifted.

Only two more weeks remain in the Grant Park Orchestra’s season. You should clear your calendar and get downtown for Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred Symphony” this weekend along with a World Premiere of a work by composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Preceding Saturday’s concert, there will be a festive “Pastoral Picnic in White” on the Great Lawn at 6 p.m. Should be quite a sight.

The closing week will feature Kalmar leading Haydn’s lovely “Cello Concerto” on Wednesday, August 16th and Beethoven’s incomparable “Symphony No. 9″ for two weekend performances.  For the full schedule, visit And consider buying a reserved seat down front so you can drown in the full aural and sensual impact of Ludwig’s divine masterwork.


PostHeaderIcon Seven Special Nights at Ravinia

Ravinia's early days

Ravinia’s early days

Ravinia started as a summer escape in 1904 when it opened as an amusement park complete with a baseball diamond, electric fountain and a casino with dining rooms and a dance floor. This first incarnation ended in 1910 but reopened a year later as a summer venue for classical music. Opera was added in 1912. Today, more than 100 years later, Ravinia is the oldest outdoor music festival in North America.

The park’s association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will mark its 80th anniversary next season. The venue remains a summer destination for world-class classical musicians. Yet, over the past two decades, the CSO has shared its summer residency with stars from the world of popular music. This profitable musical partnership can be seen as returning Ravinia back to its founding days as an amusement park with musical entertainment.

James Levine

James Levine

Nowadays, the pop calendar, with such stars as Diana Krall, Buddy Guy, the Moody Blues and Aretha Franklin,  is what draws the crowds and keeps the Ravinia Festival in the black. However, my Ravinia memories date back 40 years and innumerable nights spent picnicking on the lawn and seated on the indoor benches, listening to the Chicago Symphony under the batons of James Levine and Christoph Eschenbach. That is the tradition I want to honor today with my selection of seven nights of special orchestral and chamber music performances.

Here is the potpourri of my personal choices. I could easily made a dozen selections. You are entitled to your own favorites. Mine, in chronological and not ranking order are:

Joshwa Bell

Joshua Bell

July 12–Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Joshua Bell. Bell is a violin superstar whom I’ve never heard live. That explains why plus the Prokofiev Suite from Romeo and Juliet is such sublime music.

July 20–Susanne Malkki conducts the CSO. Ms. Malkki is garnering great notices for her conducting and I want to discover her for myself.

July 24–Calidore and Emerson String Quartets–A dream pairing of two chamber powerhouses with a wonderful program.


Susanne Malkki

August 15-17–Jonathan Biss’ second cycle of Beethoven Piano Sonatas. I enjoyed last season’s debut of this cycle. Have enthusiastically followed Biss’ playing and growing artistry over the past decade.

August 17–The Knights with Susan Graham–The Knights blew me away last season at Harris Theater with their superb playing. Opera star Susan Graham lends her creamy mezzo voice as an added bonus.

August 23–Lucerne Symphony Orchestra with James Gaffigan conducting. This is Claudio Abbado’s old orchestra of virtuoso players. Gaffigan is a rising star. The program includes another rising star, pianist Behzod Abduraimov, playing the lyrical Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto which I prefer to the overplayed Third.

Pacifica Quartet

Pacifica Quartet

September 1-3–Pacifica String Quartet–My favorite chamber ensemble tackling all 16 Beethoven String Quartets over five performances the way they tackled Shostokovich’s String Quartets several seasons back. The last time all four original members will play together. A Must-See!

Five of these evenings take place in the Pavilion. However, the Biss and Pacifica appearances are in Bennett Gordon Hall where the seated admission is only $10 per performance. And if you are a devoted lawn afficionado, as I was in my youth, you can enjoy all 7 special evenings (11 total performances) for an astoundingly low $100,  the same cost as for one Pavilion seat for Joshua Bell. For tickets click

I need to do penance for leaving James Levine’s return with “The Creation” and Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s’ “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” by Messian, whom I adore, off the list. Mea Culpa! Happy Summer Listening!

PostHeaderIcon Opera The Second Time Around

It is always instructive to read a book or see a movie twice though I rarely do.  You see some things differently or what you may have missed the first time and thus gain greater enjoyment. The same with opera. I  had that experience recently seeing two opera productions of  “Eugene Onegin”. The first production was at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in March and the second time with the Metropolitan Opera’s MetLive HD screening two weeks ago.

I have written how much I enjoyed Lyric’s staging, a beautiful, minimalist conception, by noted opera director, Robert Carsen. The Met’s version was a sumptuous grand opera staging of Tchaikovsky‘s score. The director was Deborah Warner and she shepherded a lively production featuring a superb cast in the leading roles and stunning choreography in the opera’s opening sequence and the third set’s        Opera Ball with its iconic waltz theme.

Anna Netrebko in Met's Eugene Onegin

Anna Netrebko in Met production

The MetLive production was a delicious bon bon with pleasing features but, as I watched it unfold over four hours, I kept thinking of the less-opulent Lyric performance. Carsen made us see the opera essentially as a wrenching love story that centered around two ill-fated love letters. The first letter was Tatiana’s innocent declaration of love to Onegin while the second was Onegin’s desperate appeal to win back Tatiana.

Peter Mattei in Eugene Onegin

Peter Mattei

I thought the Met’s Onegin, tenor Peter Mattei, was vocally a shade richer than Lyric’s Marius Kwiecien, Anna Maria Martinez‘s acting performance as Tatiana  was superior to the Met’s Anna Netrebko. Though Netrebko is opera’s reigning diva, I thought the role was not suited to her. It just seemed too impossible to picture her as an innocent, teenage girl. The screening stayed focused fairly close-up on her face and one saw a mature woman. While believability is not always respected in opera, I see it as a key component in winning an audience’s heart.

The next and last of Fathom Event’s MetLive HD season is Strauss’ beloved “Der Rosenkavalier” on this Saturday, May 13thI am especially anxious to see this production since the director is the same Robert Carsen who, once again, is winning raves for updating the action from 19th Century to Vienna to before the outbreak of World War I. It will also be my fifth time seeing this opera. Yet I anticipate it will reveal new insights which is one of the many pleasures opera provides.

To purchase tickets, go to





PostHeaderIcon An Imperfect American Icon

You would think that an opera by noted composer, Philip Glass, about an iconic American innovator, Walt Disney, and staged by an accomplished director of contemporary opera, Kevin Newbury, would stand a strong chance at being a success. I certainly did. But I was wrong.

Perfect American 1

Disney (center) with family and friends.

“The Perfect American” received its Chicago premiere last Saturday evening (April 22) at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. It was Chicago Opera Theater’s final production under the leadership of Artistic Director, Andreas Mitisek, who also conducted the Glass score. Mitisek has given Chicago a mixed bag of contemporary operas during his five-year tenure. He is being succeeded as artistic director by Douglas Clayton, COT’s executive director.

This season, COT enjoyed critical acclaim with a compelling staging of the Tristan and Isolde tale, “The Love Potion” and, most recently, the sci-fi story, “The Invention of Morel”. That string of success makes this disappointment more striking.

I like my opera to be coherent. Yet, “The Perfect American’s” libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer, based on the book by Peter Stephan Junge, veers sharply between fact and fantasy. The action is set in the hospital during the last three months of Disney’s life as    he relives events and petty torments in his life. Rather than being grounded in reality, the dialogue too often seems more like Disney’s fevered dream. His outbursts are uttered with no context or connection, akin to the ramblings of a sick patient under psychotropic medication.

Disney being treated

The play does have moments of clarity and could have used many more. Rather than a perfect American, Disney is portrayed as an egomaniac who took all the credit for his studio’s painstaking work and wild success. When the animators and graphic artists try to form a union, Disney crushes the attempt and fires scores of the artistic staff. Another scene shows his racist attitude toward blacks.

The play paints him as a right-wing super-patriot, the living embodiment of the American Dream for mid-century America. But the action soon pivots back to his angry outbursts. He is visited in the hospital by other historical icons, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln and pop artist, Andy Warhol, iconic figures in their own right. But their appearances are played more for laughs than insight.

Justin Ryan delivered a convincing singing and dramatic performance as Walt Disney. The large cast of supporting actors have no distinct identity and leave little impression.  I even found Glass’ signature ostinato repetitions not particularly gripping and sounding more like recycled Glass. Newbury kept the action moving at a brisk and assured pace, perhaps hoping the endless activity would mask the scant story line.

Some reviewers expressed a more forgiving opinion so perhaps you should catch the opera’s only remaining performance this Sunday, April 30, to judge for yourself. The composer is expected to attend. For tickets, call Chicago Opera Theater at 312/704-8414 or


PostHeaderIcon Two Lovers & Two Letters

It is customary in fine restaurants to serve an amuse-bouche between multiple courses. It serves as a palate cleanser and a satisfying respite., After Lyric Opera‘s rich diet of grand operas this season, from Das Rheingold and Les Troyens to Norma, that seems like the appropriate analogy for its current winning production of Eugene Onegin.

Director Robert Carsen,  whose six previous Lyric productions include the 2007-08 “Onegin” and the 2006-07 “Dialogue des Carmelites”, has masterfully stripped the story of a young girl and a worldly sophisticate down to its essential elements: infatuation, dismissal and role reversal. The staging is a stunning minimalist design of great beauty and simplicity.

Mariusz Kwiecien and Ana Maria Martinez

Mariusz Kwiecien and Ana Maria Martinez

The setting is a St. Petersburg estate in the 1820s, where little of consequence happens and the inhabitants grow bored. Imagine any play by Chekhov, from The Cherry Orchard to Uncle Vanya, transposed to the operatic stage and you have the picture. Madame Larina wants to make good marriages for her two daughters, Olga and Tatiana. During the harvest celebration, Olga’s fiance, Vladimir Lensky, a poet and his friend, Eugene Onegin pay a visit.

The leading roles were perfectly cast with Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin and Ana Maria Martinez as Tatiana. Kwiecien delivers rich, Russian tones. Martinez is the ideal lyric soprano the score demands. Visually, Kwiecien is a handsome lover, with the right aristocratic bearing and Martinez is appropriately petite with a youthful appearance. Each sang beautifully, with the vocal highlight of the evening being the Third Act’s passionate duet, their only vocal appearance together.

Carsen opens the opera with a very smart bit of stagecraft. He has a spotlight capture Onegin in a chair reading Tatiana’s fateful love letter, then repeats the image at the start of the third act. But, this time, it’s Tatiana reading Onegin’s impassioned letter. Besides the direction, credit must also be given to the original lighting designer, Jean Kalman. Her superbly suggestive use of color–shades of orange, deep blue, gold and peach– conveys times of day or seasons and renders the need for scenery superfluous. Quite clean and simple.

During Lensky’s visit, Tatiana is quite smitten with Onegin and, that night, pours her heart out to him in a lovesick letter. Onegin treats her note as an innocent girl’s infatuation. While touched, he cannot accept her love since he would quickly grow bored with domestic life. He can only love her like a brother. Tatiana is devastated.

When they meet again several years later, Onegin has traveled the world seeking excitement but returns home, bored and still seeking meaning. He attends a ball given by his cousin, Prince Gremin, and discovers that Tatiana is now a mature beauty and Gremin’s wife. Onegin now finds himself in love with her and implores her to run away with him. But now, Tatiana, though she still loves him, resists remaining true to her marriage vow. Onegin is the devastated one, realizing his chance at true love, once so freely given, was now forever lost.

You have five more opportunities to hear Tchaikovsky‘s lovely melodies with the next performance on March 8th. The opera is being performed through March 20th. For tickets, go to