Posts Tagged ‘Chicago Classical music’

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 A Trio On the Verge

Lincoln Trio

Lincoln Trio

I first encountered The Lincoln Trio slightly more than three years ago. They were about to embark on a months-long concert tour of Illinois towns, presented by the Ravinia Music Festival, marking the Bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Their playing made a positive first impression which was strengthened a few months later at a Music in the Loft concert. They matched flawless ensemble playing with impressive, unified sound and  an intensity of attack that was palpable. Their obvious talent, combined with youth and photogenic appeal, made for a winning combination.

David Cunliffe

The trio (Desiree Ruhstrat, violin, David Cunliffe, cello and Marta Aznavoorian, piano), formed in 2003, was at the time still in a formative stage of their musical life. I wondered would they be able to assemble all the many elements involved in rising above the crowded musical pack to fashion a successful career. Today, at the end of their 10th season performing together, they appear poised to reap the reward for their critical accolades and break through to wider public acclaim.

Most music fans have no idea of the labyrinth aspiring musicians must navigate to enjoy a top-flight career.  Talent is merely the first requirement. To that base must be added rock-solid dedication, strong training pedigree, professional management, recordings, touring, impressive reviews, helpful sponsors, usually a connection with a music conservatory and lots of luck! Lack several of those critical elements and your ensemble will remain stuck on the middle rungs of the career ladder. Let’s look at the road The Lincoln Trio has followed in pursuit of its dream.

One year after coming together, the trio was invited to become the resident ensemble at the Music Institute of Chicago, replacing the Pacifica Quartet, who have gone on to greater success. Their first big break was a debut at Fredda Hyman’s Music in the Loft series in 2006. Fredda became one of their important champions. The trio also met Jim Ginsburg, head of Cedille Records, at the loft which led to the first of four recordings for the label.

Marta Aznavoorian

Marta Aznavoorian

In 2008, a casual dinner party conversation Desiree had with Welz Kauffman, head of the Ravinia Festival, resulted in their Lincoln Bicentennial tour which kicked off in Springfield on the day Barack Obama officially announced his candidacy for President. Ravinia also helped them find  professional management. That same year, the trio were winners at the Masterplayers International Competition in Venice, Italy.

Having management raised their concert appearances and led to recitals on many chamber music series in Texas, Vermont, California, Indianapolis and overseas in Germany and Colombia, South America.

Each month of 2011 seemed filled with important musical milestones. They performed in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall in January, followed by a Music in the Loft concert. In March, they toured Singapore, Hong Kong and Vietnam on behalf of Ravinia. June brought an important breakthrough, their Ravinia recital debut.

In the Fall, they performed locally at the Arts Club and at Le Poussin Rouge, an arts cabaret in New York’s Greenwich Village, toured California and played again at MITL. They also released their new Cedille recording, “Notable Women,” the first in which they were the sole headliners. The release featured six works-four world premieres-by noted contemporary women composers such as Stacy Garrop, Augusta Read Thomas and Joan Tower. It received a Grammy Award nomination.

It also helps to have the local classical radio station as a supporter.  The trio has appeared numerous times on WFMT including its Impromptu program, the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert series and last December’s “Day of Music” marking the station’s 60th anniversary.

Such a record of relentless activity, personal drive and critical acclaim is what gives an ensemble its necessary momentum and wider recognition. You can see them in recital next Friday evening, August 24th, at Ravinia’s Bennett-Gordon Hall.  The program includes Brahms’ Trio No. 2 and two premieres–the world premiere of Chicago composer Mischa Zupko’s Piano Quartet and the Chicago premiere of Anton Arensky’s Piano Quintet. Tickets are only $10 and can be ordered online at I urge you to go and judge for yourself.


Desiree Ruhstrat

The trio is known for adventurous programming, mixing contemporary repertoire with classic selections. “We feel the ideal program is to combine something new with traditional composers, thereby giving it a new twist,” says trio member Desiree Ruhstrat. The ensemble has just been awarded a $15,000 grant by Chamber Music America to commission a new work.

On the horizon for 2013 are release in January of “Annelies,” a score for chorus, soprano and chamber ensemble, based on the literary classic, “Diary of Anne Frank.” The Naxos recording features The Lincoln Trio along with soprano, Arianna Zukerman (daughter of violinist Pinchas Zukerman) and the Westminster Williamson Voices. That will be followed by an appearance with Chicago Chamber Musicians that also features the Chicago Children’s Choir and a new, yet unannounced, recording project for Cedille.

This five-year whirlwind of activity and accomplishment makes me confident that the trio is close to climbing more musical rungs toward new heights. If so, I will feel a sense of vicarious pleasure and be able to claim, “I knew them when.”

PostHeaderIcon Music Festivals = Summer Magic

Summer in Chicago

Summer in Chicago

“Hot Time, Summer in the City” is a lyric from an old rock song. Summer means lots of beaches, barbeque, beer. Yet Chicago goes far beyond those three summer staples. In fact, I think Chicago does summer better than almost any other American city. There are festivals nearly every weekend in the neighborhoods and downtown. It began last weekend with the Blues Festival, will continue with the Gospel Festival this weekend. Pitchfork brings indie bands in July with Lollapalooza close on its heels in August . Chicago’s outstanding Jazz Festival caps the season on Labor Day.

Besides the above three Bs, Chicago Summer comes alive for me with Beethoven, Brahms and Berlioz. And the music moves outdoors under the stars at Ravinia and Grant Park.

In this post, I try to help  you focus on a  few of the summer’s top classical offerings, saving you lots of time and headaches, and hoping you will catch a few. When I’m listening to great music, sitting on the lawn downtown or at Ravinia, I get a “great to be alive” vibe that fills my whole being. Try it. Good music is medicine that feeds your soul.

Begin with this Thursday, June 21st. Chicago will celebrate “Make Music Chicago 2012” Day. The whole city will become one big music stage. Music of all kinds will be performed in 75 locations throughout the day, ending with a three-hour program at St. James Cathedral from 6 to 9 p.m.

This is the second year Chicago has hosted this event. Its inspiration is the “Fete de la Musique” event that started in Paris 30 years ago and has been adopted by every town throughout France and in 460 cities worldwide.

Last June 21, I had the good fortune to be in France and participated in “Fete” there. Pauline and I were totally captivated by the way in which Vence’s residents of all ages turned out for the music–even heard a French band play “Sweet Home Chicago”–and dancing in the town square. For a schedule of all the day’s free events, including a Chicago Symphony open rehearsal, go to

Ravinia on the lawn

Ravinia on the lawn

Ravinia Festival– The Chicago Sympony Orchestra’s residency this year features 21 concerts led by principal conductor, James Conlon, including two operas in concert-style, beginning in July. For my taste, there are three not-to-be-missed CSO performances packing more musical firepower: July 7 when conductor Jaap van Zweden makes his Ravinia debut following several acclaimed Orchestra Hall appearances conducting Mahler; July 21 when pop diva, Patti

Jean Yves Thibaudet

Jean Yves Thibaudet

LuPone, and opera diva, Patricia Racette, bring the house down and August 7 when brilliant French pianist, Jean Yves Thibaudet, weaves his magic spell with two Ravel concertos.

Classical Ravinia means more than the CSO.  The festival boasts top-drawer chamber music programming.  Ravinia’s schedule in this genre is more adventurous with lesser-known works and a nice mixture of world-class artists and younger stars-in-the-making.  An added bonus: you can enjoy  great musicmaking for an amazing $10 seat amid the lawn’s bucolic surroundings amongst a more intimate gathering of music fans.

The enjoyment begins this Friday, June 23, with a 75th Birthday Concert by Philip Glass accompanied by rising star violinist, Timothy

Emerson String Quartet

Emerson String Quartet

Fain. Make time to catch the superb Emerson String Quartet on July 6. This renowned ensemble has performed together for more than 35 seasons during which they have captured 9 Grammy Awards, 3 Gramophone Awards and the prestigious Avery Fisher prize.

Though Nicola Benedetti and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich will appear with the CSO on July 13, I prefer to hear these two artists, plus pianist Alexei Grynyuk, play a chamber recital the night before. This trio of 20-something European all-stars (Benedetti is the BBC’s Musician of the Year and reportedly plays a $7.5 million Strad) sound like they could  generate rave reviews.

A young artist who has moved beyond youthful promise and is now embarked on a solid career is pianist Jonathan Biss. I have enjoyed his intelligent, moving playing in previous appearances and will be in the audience on August 1. He will be performing with his mother, noted violinist Miriam Fried, in a program of violin and piano sonatas.

An innovation this season is a series of more than 30 concerts in Bennett Gordon Hall featuring future stars with tickets priced to fly out of the box office for a ridiculous $10. A perfect date night followed by a post-performance picnic on the grass.

Behzod Abduraimov

Behzod Abduraimov

Make plans on August 24 to hear The Lincoln Trio, three impressive artists who released a fine recording of contemporary women composers last year. Then, on August 31, catch 21-year-old sensation, Behzod Abduraimov, winner of the 2009 London International Piano Competition, who is already being hailed as a “young master”. He will perform Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata and Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz”.

There’s a special place in my soul for the cello. Johannes Moser supply a fine evening of expert cello playing on September 4 performing Brahms’ “Cello Sonata No. 1” and Poulenc’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano” with Orion Weiss.

Grant Park Music Festival–The Grant Park Orchestra, led by conductor Carlos Kalmar, played superbly at last week’s opening concert of the 78th season featuring cello soloist, Alban Gerhardt.

Grant Park Chorus

Grant Park Chorus

The highlight of America’s oldest free music festival is the 50th Anniversary of the esteemed Grant Park Chorus under Christopher Bell’s direction. Six concerts will feature the chorus, including two world premiere commissions for orchestra and chorus (the first, “An Exaltation of Place” by Michael Gandolfi was performed this past weekend)  and the forthcoming  release of the chorus’ first ever a cappella recording of works by American composers including Ned Rorem, David Del Tredici, Stacy Garrop and Eric Whitacre on the Cedille Records label.

Once again, the festival sparkles with imaginative programs. Nearly every week contains a rarity, world premiere or a choral masterwork. Let me single out five worth your attention. This Saturday, June 23, the orchestra will begin a week-long collaboration with the visiting Paris Opera Ballet (whose Harris Theater performance of Giselle on June 27th will be simulcast in Millennium Park). To kick-off the festivities on Saturday, Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” is matched with Ravel’s “Bolero”.

On June 29 & 30, an all-choral program features Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” and Carl Orff’s sonic spectacular Carmina Burana”. The chorus will be featured again on July 13 & 14 for a tribute to Broadway musical legend, Frank Loesser, composer for such classic musicals as “Guys and Dolls”, “The Most Happy Fella” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”.

Rounding off this favorites list are two exciting back-to-back programs. On August 3 & 4, Kalmar leads a program of Latin American and Spanish masterpieces, including “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”, a twist on Vivaldi’s famous work by Astor Piazzolla. Topping off the season is Antonin Dvorak’s “The Spectre’s Bride”, a rarely-performed cantata for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists. I’m flying blind here but trusting Dvorak’s stirring melodies and Kalmar’s musical taste to end the season on a rousing note. To access a full schedule, go to

St. James Cathedral

St. James Cathedral

While those are my picks for your outdoor listening pleasure, I can’t not mention two worthy musical series taking place indoors. Every Tuesday evening through August 28, St. James Cathedral, at Wabash Avenue and Huron St., is presenting a marvelous summer series of “Rush Hour Concerts”.  The music starts at 5:45 and lasts 30-45 minutes. All performances are preceded at 5:15 p.m. with a reception in which you can mingle with the artists.

I had the pleasure of hearing “Fifth House Ensemble” last week offer a totally winning concert of contemporary works. The program ended with 42 musicians scattered throughout the church, performing an 8-minute excerpt of Terry Riley’s work “In C”, a fascinating, neo-Cagean tonal explosion. It was a bracing tonic that put me in the right frame of mind for the evening.

St. James is the featured site for this week’s “Make Music Chicago” closing performances to be broadcast on WFMT if you choose to stay home. For the schedule of the summer’s Rush Hour concerts, go to

For die-hard opera fans, there is never an off-season. There’s always an opera somewhere. To satisfy this insatiable craving, The Metropolitan Opera will rebroadcast six of its most successful productions in movie theaters nationwide, part of a Summer Encore series.

Joyce DiDonato

Joyce DiDonato

If you haven’t yet seen opera up close on the jumbo screen, it is opera as you’ve never seen or heard it on TV or in the house (unless you had $300 seats). You owe it to yourself to catch at least one production between now and July 25.

The series kicked off last week with “Rinaldostarring Anna Netrebko. This Wednesday, I am expecting vocal fireworks when I attend Rossini’s “Comte Ory” with tenor Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato.

Other operas are Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”,  “Tales of Hoffman”, “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Renee Fleming and Susan Graham in “Der Rosenkavalier”. For full details, go to

Here’s wishing you a happy Summer filled with uplifting music to stir your soul and make all seem right with the world.

PostHeaderIcon SFO Salutes Ten “American Mavericks”

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas has always had a special affinity for the music of American composers. The Los Angeles-born  music director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, he has championed those pioneers  who, according to an SFO website, “created a new American musical voice for the 20th Century.” In 2000, Thomas organized the first “American Mavericks” festival devoted to such seminal figures as Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, John Cage and Charles Ives. This month, he is touring the next iteration of “American Mavericks” in Chicago, Ann Arbor and New York City.

Charles Ives

Charles Ives

I was in the Orchestra Hall audience ten days ago for several reasons. Foremost was to hear the orchestra in its first Chicago appearance in 10 years. I heard them once before under the leadership of Herbert Blomstedt but wanted to hear their playing  under Thomas’ direction. They performed brilliantly, playing with total commitment and keen attack, signs of an improved ensemble relishing the chance to play such challenging fare. Another reason was to hear the works on the program (Cowell, John Adams & Ives). Apart from Adams, the other mavericks are rarely heard inside Symphony Center. Finally, I wanted to see if my musical ears had grown more accustomed to Ives’ spiky, contrapuntal tonal palette. Thomas is widely viewed as the premier interpreter of Ives.

The program opened with a haunting, soaring trumpet solo from Cowell’s “Synchrony.” I hadn’t expected such a lovely melody at the start and found the rhythmic and melodic tonal clusters that followed pleasantly accessible. Cowell also taught and reportedly influenced the work of other mavericks, particularly Cage and Lou Harrison.

John Adams

John Adams

Adams’ newest work, “Absolute Jest” followed. It is the fourth commission he has composed for San Francisco beginning with “Harmonium” in 1981. It is hard to believe that Adams was ever a musical maverick. However, he is credited with steering music away from the dry 12-tone exercises of academic modernism and back to a more expressive and humanistic realm. His 1986 opera, “Nixon in China” broke new ground and, ever since his 2002 tribute to the victims of 9/11, “On the Transmigration of Souls”, Adams has become the default composer for orchestra programmers, a contemporary composer audiences will tolerate.

As I listened to the buoyant, yet fractured rhythms, the work had a pastiche quality that, while enjoyable in performance, did not leave a lasting impression. Afterward, reading the program notes, Adams called the piece’s short bursts “quotations”.  While my ear caught, what I thought were snippets of Copland, I later learned that he was borrowing freely from Beethoven’s late quartets and even the Ninth Symphony.  The inclusion of the St. Lawrence String Quartet was an interesting touch. As stand-ins for Beethoven’s quartets, they played with fierce engagement, often in attacking juxtaposition to the orchestra. It was a novel but not entirely successful experiment.

I still don’t “get” Ives but I realize that he has changed modern music’s vocabulary and earned his “American Maverick” stripes. However, Henry Brant’s rich orchestration of Ives’ “A Concord Symphony” (originally a sonata solely for piano) softened many of the piece’s rough edges and made Ives’ ideas more pronounced and palatable, particularly the sweetly melodic third movement, The Alcotts.  His tribute to three other transcendental New England writers–Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau–remain a musical puzzle to my ears.

Tilson Thomas has lived with the music of these composers for many years. I left Symphony Center convinced that no other orchestra could interpret these works as convincingly and idiomatically. That opinion was evidently shared by many younger members of the audience who whooped and applauded heartily for each work on the program. The audience skewed much younger than the usual CSO audience. At least 1/3 of the crowd in the lower balcony were high school and college students. While the CSO offered heavily discounted pricing for students on their website and on Groupon, many also came because of Thomas and the orchestra’s reputation for contemporary fare. For a list of concerts in April and May with special $10 seats for students, go to

Though it was satisfying to hear the SFO at all, I wonder why Chicago audiences were treated to only one program from the festival while Ann Arbor presented three full programs  immediately after Chicago and New York’s Carnegie Hall is presenting all four festival programs. Tilson Thomas is a definite draw when he plays with our orchestra and a broad audience exists in Chicago for more adventuresome repertoire beyond the iconic three B’s. Was it not worth the risk of a less than full house to showcase rarely-performed works by such game-changing composers?  We missed out on hearing soprano Jesse Norman and Meredith Monk perform John Cage’s “Songbooks”, early Aaron Copland and Mason Bates’ recent commission for the SFO, “Mass Transmission.” Is Chicago still too provincial in its musical tastes? I’d like to think not.

Tilson Thomas was asked when he began his tenure in San Francisco 15 years ago what he hoped people would think about the orchestra in years to come. His response: “America’s most fearless, most dangerous and most generous orchestra.” As it celebrates its 100th Anniversary, I’d say the SFO has fulfilled that mission splendidly!

PostHeaderIcon Arts In Bloom For May

Not just flowers but the arts are also in full bloom in May. If you are scouting for something different to do this month besides the old stand-bys (movies, touring museums or club-crawling), here are six events sure to inject some added spark in your social calendar.

Chi Humanities spring1. Spring Humanities Festival —May 3-15Chicagoans flock every Fall to the Chicago Humanities Festival. A lesser-known fact is that the festival has a sister version each Spring. This year’s festival is titled “Stages, Sights and Sounds” and features 40 performances by 4 theater companies from Scotland, Italy, Canada and The Netherlands. The companies will perform at the Museum of Contemporary Art and on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus. For more information on the troupes, dates and tickets, see or phone 312/494-9509.

2. Chicago Opera Theater—MAY 7 & 8When art, like life, hands you a lemon, make lemonade. That’s precisely what Chicago Opera Theater General Manager Brian Dickie did when the previously announced production, Shostokovich’s opera,”Cheryomushki,” was put off to next season. Dickie then had an inspired notion: stage two song cycles about obsessive love and add visual special effects by the Chicago Symphony’s “Beyond the Score” team of Gerard McBurney and animator Hillary Leben. The dream images, Leben says, are “meant to lead the audience through the expressive emotional content of the songs. It’s a chance to experience them on a deeper level.”

COT will present Robert Schumann’s “A Woman’s Love and Life” and Leos Janacek’s “The Diary of One Who Disappeared.” Go to witness the fascinating interplay of images and song. But hurry. There are only two performances at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Tickets range from $25-75 with half-price seats for students. For more information, go to

chicago-architecture-foundation-walking-tours3.After Five” Walking ToursAre you new in town or simply want to know the story behind some of Chicago’s most famous structures? The Chicago Architecture Foundation will begin a series of 11 “After Five” walking tours this month through September. Learn more about our city’s heralded architectural heritage after work and be home in time for dinner. Some offerings include “Downtown Deco,” “Modern Skyscrapers,” “Gold Coast: Astor Street.” Tours are led by the foundation’s trained docents and cost a modest $15. For a full list of tours, go to


The Front Page

4. The Front Page—Now Thru July 17At a time when blogging passes for reporting and newspapers are in financial peril, relive what Chicago journalism was like in its 1920s heyday while laughing your head off. “The Front Page”, by Chicago legends, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, draws on their exploits (more like shenanigans) at City News Bureau in this landmark comedy that exposes the rampant corruption and hi-jinks synonymous with Windy City politics and journalism of that era. The crack TimeLine cast bring the madcap antics of star reporter Hildy Johnson Death Row inmate, Earl Williams and the paper’s tyrannical managing editor, Walter Burns, to life. To book tickets, go to


Bill Cunningham

5. Bill Cunningham New York—Starts May 20Some people read The New York Times for its political coverage, others for its business news or op-ed pundits, but the city’s entire fashion and society world read it for Bill Cunningham’s weekly photo essays. However, everyone will find the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, enchanting for its portrait of a delightful 82 year-old, humble gentleman who gets around New York by bike and whose singular passion is capturing Manhattan’s street and night life on film. Make this movie a top priority. You will exit the Music Box on a high note. For more details, check out

6. Artspeaks—MAY 16This University of Chicago program, now in its seventh season, gathers renowned artists from various disciplines in conversation for the benefit of the campus and Hyde Park community. But I’m sure they won’t ask for your passport if you venture to Hyde Park from the North Side. Director Peter Sellars, playwright Tony Kushner, choreographer Bill T. Jones and artist Kara Walker have been past participants.

The May program features playwright/producer David Henry Hwang, best known for the play, M.Butterfly and Producer/Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, former head of New York’s Public Theater, who now teaches at New York University. They will discuss their craft and Hwang’s upcoming Goodman production of Chinglish. The duo will appear at International House, starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $5 for students. To order tickets, call 773-702-8068.