Posts Tagged ‘classical music’

PostHeaderIcon Lyric Duo Worth Singing About

Each year, around Christmastime, arts critics recollect top performances of the past year. Well,  90 days later (due to other commitments), I’m ready to offer my own compliments to Lyric Opera. My tardiness offered the unexpected bonus of seeing an additional production, “La Boheme” last month. So far, my Lyric viewing has consisted of two stellar productions and Lyric appears set to end its season on a high note with Anna Netrebko in “Boheme” and Renee Fleming in “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

Christine Goerke

Christine Goerke

While I am a great fan of Strauss, opening the season with his challenging “Elektra” took courage. I even confess that I was not sure I wanted to relive the Trojan War and hear Greeks venting full-throated anger. But I am so glad I went. Christine Goerke’s incredible portrayal of Elektra will remain an all-time operatic high point. Her full-out singing and committed portrayal of a woman in the throes of grief and vengeance earned her the lustiest curtain calls I have ever heard at Lyric. Those who missed it now know they missed a milestone.

Thomas Hampson & Feruccio Furlanetto

Thomas Hampson & Feruccio Furlanetto

Following “Elektra,” Lyric paid the first of two tributes to the bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth with the rarely-performed “Simon Boccanegra.Proper respect was paid with a strongly-cast production headed by baritone Thomas Hampson as Simon and great Italian bass, Ferruccio Furlanetto, as the wronged father, Jacopo Fiesco. The story is packed with political and romantic intrigue that, at times, is hard to follow, just like Italian politics today. The opera had its premiere 156 years ago this week (March 12, 1857) and is full of Verdi’s passionate commitment to the unification of Italy that resulted 13 years later.

It was a treat to hear the musical interplay between these two great voices. When they took their final bows, their respect and enjoyment of one another’s artistry was visible. While I exited the hall after Elektra feeling emotionally overwhelmed, I left Simon in a mood of pure contentment, having heard two master singers deliver a stirring performance.

My reaction to “La Boheme” must be more muted. I had the misfortune to attend a performance in which the role of Rodolfo was played by an understudy, Jose Luis Duval. This, unfortunately, affected my enjoyment. Duval, reportedly, has sung lead roles in Houston, Dallas, LA Opera and Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, but I’m sure not recently. He is now a singer in his late 50s with a very weak middle register that made it hard to hear his words. He gave a game performance but was unable to make Rodolfo’s youthful ardor for the young seamstress, Mimi, believable.

Anna Netrebko & Joseph Calleja

Anna Netrebko & Joseph Calleja

One could have no qualms about Ana Maria Martinez performance. She was in fine voice and endowed her arias with colorful phrasing. Soprano Elizabeth Futral was a winning and vain Musetta who brightened the proceedings at the Cafe Momus. Catch the remaining performances through March 28 when two new operatic stars take over.  Anna Netrebko, the international diva of the moment, will be Mimi with Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo. I’m willing to give Lyric a mulligan on that ill-starred performance and bet the new duo makes everything right.

Rigoletto at the Met

"Rigoletto" at the Met

Let me close with  a note about “Rigoletto” which also continues this month. Lyric is presenting the classic staging set in 16th Century Italy. Since I haven’t seen it, I must rely on critics who have proclaimed it ‘first-rate.” Instead, I had the pleasure, and that’s the word, of seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s production, set in 1960s Las Vegas with the Duke of Mantua and his retinue evoking the Sinatra “Rat Pack” and Cosa Nostra cronies.

It was perhaps a touch gimmicky but great fun nonetheless. It proved that moving the setting over 400 years forward to our recent memory could be done without trashing the original. Based on the MetLive performance I saw, Lyric director, Anthony Freud, should give Chicagoans a chance to hear Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, an outstanding Duke, while bass Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile looked and sounded like the new Sam Ramey and the perfect Mephistopheles for a future “Damnation of Faust”.

Perhaps Lyric had sound artistic reasons–or financial ones?–for sticking with its version. But if it wants to fill seats with a more youthful audience, it might adopt some of Peter Gelb’s thinking. The news that 7 of Lyric’s 8 operas next season will be new productions augurs well and shows Freud seems ready to set Lyric on a more adventurous course.

Lyric’s season continues through April 7. Performances of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” start in May. For tickets, visit

PostHeaderIcon Georg Solti Centennial

The most evident centennial being celebrated in Chicago right now is that of Poetry Magazine. You can’t walk anywhere in the Loop and miss the lightpole banners, streetside bulletin boards and even poets reading work from buried loudspeakers along State Street. I salute Poetry founder Harriet Monroe’s cultural achievement of 1912, especially when Chicago was more popularly known at the time as “Hogbutcher for the World.”

This Sunday, Chicago marks another centennial honoring one of the greatest and enduring musical conductors of the 20th Century, Sir Georg Solti. Fifteen

Solt - World Concert for Peace

Solti - World Concert for Peace

years after his untimely death, members of the Chicago Symphony will join many other first-chair musicians from top international orchestras in a World Concert for Peace. This was an orchestra Solti founded in 1995 because he believed in the “unique strength of music could be as ambassador for peace.” The concert will be led by Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev and feature many headline soloists from the worlds of opera and classical music.

For details about Solti and his years with Chicago,  go to a special Chicago Symphony website, Solti at 100, An excellent biography of Solti and his career can also be found on Wikipedia. Rather than repeat the known facts of his illustrious career with leading orchestras as well as the Chicago Symphony from 1969 to 1991 (conductor laureate until 1997), I will share personal memories of this great musician as my contribution to the occasion.

While I attended the University of Chicago in 1966-67, I would usually attend Friday afternoon concerts. The orchestra was nearly a decade removed from its glory days under Fritz Reiner and the new leader was Jean Martinon. The orchestra sounded fine but a sense of excitement was missing.  I only read about Solti’s appointment in 1969 since I had graduated in 1968 and moved back to New York City.

Sir George Solti

Sir George Solti

My first chance to hear the orchestra came in December, 1972 during the orchestra’s appearance at Carnegie Hall. Solti was 60 at the time but his intensity on the podium belied his age. I remember being thrilled at what I was hearing and so were other members of the audience at intermission. When the orchestra sounded the final note of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, I will never forget the sight of patrons in the upper balcony of Carnegie casting program confetti down on the audience below. Orchestra members gazed up at the spectacle (which I have only witnessed one other time) and smiled.

That was the beginning of Chicago’s conquest of the New York music world! For several years, I held a box seat subscription to the symphony’s twice yearly appearances. And when I moved back to Chicago in 1977, I kept my box seat and always scheduled my semi-annual business trips to New York to coincide with the orchestra’s appearances. Those were such memorable and musically uplifting evenings! The orchestra always sounded better in Carnegie’s warm acoustics than at home.

Then, around 1991, Solti conducted a great performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass with an all-star cast of Annie Sophie von Otter, Felicity Lott and Siegfried Jerusalem. I was very moved by Solti’s reading (always highly energetic and musically revelatory ) and went to meet him afterwards in the conductor’s Green Room. He was seated, his shirt open and obviously spent following the performance.

I approached and told him how moved I was by the concert. He thanked me and I then offered a token gift of my appreciation–a pencil with the orchestra’s name on the side. He held it in his hand and said, “Yes, this is my orchestra,” reflecting a self-evident fact, not realizing my intent.

As I continued to stand there, he appeared puzzled and repeated the fact of it being his orchestra. Finally, he asked, in his Hungarian accent, “Why you give me this?” I told him that I had presented a similar gift to each soloist. With tears welling in my eyes, I replied, “Because I have nothing else I can give.” Waiting a few seconds, he answered, “In that case, I will keep it.” That moment revealed the humanity and big heart of the man, a musician who remains one of the three greatest conductors in my experience–Solti, Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado.

Solti Bust

Solti Bust

If you cannot attend the concert, the next time you are around Symphony Center, visit his memorial inside the southeast corner of Grant Park at Jackson where you will find a bust of Solti   (not a good likeness, unfortunately) and pay your respects to this man who put the Chicago Symphony on the map worldwide. (The orchestra’s first European tour under Solti resulted in a ticker tape parade down LaSalle St. and set the orchestra’s present reputation). Today’s orchestra rests on the shoulders of this renowned musician whose legacy will only grow greater with time.

PostHeaderIcon A Special Musical Legacy

It is common knowledge that Chicago enjoys a rich and vibrant classical music scene. We can boast of having a world-class symphony orchestra, opera company and classical radio station (WFMT). Ensembles and choral groups covering every period from Early Music and Baroque to contemporary abound. In addition, there is a highly diverse group of top classical presenters ranging from Ravinia, the Harris Theater, the University of Chicago and Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, each of which features internationally-known soloists and ensembles.

Fredda Hyman

Fredda Hyman

Yet, for many years, there was no place in Chicago outside the academy where young, unestablished, classical artists and ensembles could hone their talent and make their mark. This was the large musical void that Fredda Hyman set out to fill 20 years ago. Her mission was audacious but her indomitable determination and unerring musical taste enabled her to make a grand success of Music in the Loft (MITL). Unfortunately, Fredda passed away last December.

This Sunday, May 6th, supporters and many of the artists she discovered and helped launch on successful careers will pay tribute to her inspiring vision with a Champagne Reception and Concert at The Standard Club, starting at 3 p.m. “Fredda would want it to be a celebration rather than a memorial,” says Desiree Ruhstrat, violinist with The Lincoln Trio.

Among the artists who will appear are the Ying Quartet, a then-new group who were featured on MITL’s first season in 1992 and have gone on to enjoy wide success, The Lincoln Trio who have appeared on more than a half-dozen programs, Quartet Ventoso, pianist Adam Neiman, guitarist Goran Ivanovic and singers Patrice Michaels, Jonita Lattimore, Jessye Wright and Robert Sims. All artists Fredda championed.

The Lincoln Trio

The Lincoln Trio

The germinating seed that led to MITL was the move Fredda made in 1990 with her husband, Sidney, a best-selling author and historian. The couple moved from Hyde Park and settled in the West Loop when that area was still pioneer territory. They discovered that their loft apartment had superb acoustics which spurred the brainstorm to convert their living room into an impromptu concert space in 1992. I suspect that first concert was mounted as  a lark for friends and that their favorable reaction gave Fredda the idea to turn it into a 5-concert series.

Fredda and Sidney’s presence and involvement at every concert, the intimate setting and  informal reception with the artists afterwards gave a very 19th Century atmosphere to  21st Century performances. To hear top-notch talent in a room with perhaps 80 other listeners, the way audiences heard Mozart’s music, is a rare luxury in today’s mega-music world.

Once launched, Fredda, whose love of music was nurtured and deepened as a former dancer with American Ballet Theater, discovered her life’s new purpose.  “She was able to identify groups who’d be successful before they became successful,” says Ruhstrat. Her roster of discoveries, made by attending concerts and listening to countless CDs, included The Ying Quartet, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, The Pacifica Quartet and The Amelia Trio, who perform with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road troupe.

Fredda Hyman in her music-filled loft

Fredda Hyman in her music-filled loft

Not only did she aid young musical performers but, starting in 1998, she founded an allied composer-in-residence program and gave composers an equally rare showcase for their work at MITL concerts. Among the composers who benefited from the exposure were Stacy Garrop, Lita Grier, Ricardo Lorenz and a then 16-year old wunderkind, Conrad Tao. “Fredda was just about the most wonderful supporter anyone could hope for,” Grier mentioned on a WFMT tribute, aired the day after Fredda’s death. “She was perpetually looking for opportunities for my works to be performed. She’d find these manuscripts and say let’s give a listen….in this way, a piano sonata that I composed when I was 17 got its world premiere performance at Fredda’s concert.”  Similar stories by other artists confirm Ruhstrat’s verdict that, “she was the consummate matchmaker.”

Fredda’s modus operandi for discovering new talent was simple yet mysterious. “She actually went out and listened for herself and made her own judgments,” says James Ginsburg, founder and president of Cedille Records. “She was an independent person with a very good ear.” And once she made a discovery, she booked them and was not shy about telling many people how great they were.

She once did so with Ginsburg, comparing her latest find with an artist he favored who played the same instrument.  He remembers her telling him, “My artist is better”. When Ginsburg went to hear her artist play, he had to admit she was right.  Ginsburg recalls one wag saying, “Fredda was not one to accept received wisdom.” She blazed her own path and made her own judgments.

You can purchase tickets at MITL’s website, or by calling 312/919-5030. While tickets are priced at $150 (reserved seating) and $100, students can–and should–take advantage of a special $20 price. Do it for Fredda who did so much for music!

PostHeaderIcon Berlin’s Digital Hall:“Bravi”

Last week, our own Chicago Symphony Orchestra ended a successful tour of six European cities, including stops in the music capitals of Salzburg, Paris and Vienna. The orchestra also paid first-time visits to Luxembourg and Dresden, Germany.

Besides the tumultuous receptions the musicians received in each city, the two-week tour achieved a prime business objective: building the CSO’s fan base among old and new audiences abroad. And, in pursuit of that goal, touring and recordings remain the main brand-building tools of the major international orchestras—with one exception.



The Berlin Philharmonic, after several years of intense planning, has mastered the technology and raised the necessary corporate funding (courtesy of Deutsche Bank) to place many past and nearly all its current concerts on its “Digital Concert Hall”, the only product of its kind in the music world.

With an on-site studio providing digital transmission, the orchestra  broadcasts 30 live concerts a season from its home, The Philharmonie, to audiences around the world. This impressive global reach gives the Berliners and their leader, Sir Simon Rattle, a commanding new tool in branding toolbox.

Sir Simon Rattle

Sir Simon Rattle

I had the pleasure of watching the orchestra’s season-opening concert on August 26. Rattle and the orchestra gave a dynamic, driving performance of Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The video transmission on my Apple computer was flawless and the all-important sound quality didn’t disappoint.

While nothing can replace the special thrill of being part of a live audience in the hall, watching a highly-charged performance, from the comfort of one’s living room, minus all the costs of a night on the town is appealing.

The orchestra’s next live performance is this Sunday, September 18th, when they perform Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (appropriate during the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death), the “Symphony of a Thousand”. The work requires an augmented orchestra and several hundred choral forces. The financial and technical demands such a mammoth production presents are why it has been performed by Berlin only four times since World War II.

With its concert hall innovation, the Philharmonic has blazed a new musical path and offered music lovers an attractively-priced way to attend concerts. Especially attractive for students, elderly music lovers. those on limited incomes and listeners outside Germany.

Digital concert hall subscription options:You can buy a 48-hour ticket to one live concert with access to the orchestra’s archives (120 concerts featuring the world’s top conductors and soloists) for just $13 (which won’t even get you a seat in Orchestra Hall’s upper Gallery). The best introductory option is the 30-day pass for approximately $40 which provides access to the archives and 4 live concerts. A yearly subscription for 30 live concerts and archive access is $200.

Digital Concert Hall

Digital Concert Hall

My sole reservation with the season-opener was the absence of any introduction to the Mahler such as is provided to concertgoers by Program Notes at the hall. The Seventh is not a widely-known work in the Mahler canon and has gained a place in the orchestral repertoire only recently.

It would have been most useful to feature a welcoming host who could have provided neophytes and even knowledgeable listeners with a 4 or 5 minute overview of the symphony’s themes and their development in the score. Mahler was a contemporary composer whose shifting moods and melancholia often appeared in his works.

I urge serious music lovers and new fans alike to access and explore the Philharmonic’s website at I think you will echo my sentiments completely. I say, “Bravi” to Berlin!

POSTSCRIPT: Just announced, new 48-hour subscription that allows usage for a whole weekend: Subscription and 48-hour ticket.

PostHeaderIcon Lofty Music Indeed

Lincoln trioWhere can lovers in search of live music go to hear outstanding, award-winning performers?  Yes Lyric Opera, Symphony Center, Harris Theater, University of Chicago would qualify.  But here’s the kicker—where for just $20 ($10 for students) and a front row seat?  The only place like that I know of is a loft at 1017 West Washington Boulevard where Music in the Loft (MITL) presents 10 concerts each year featuring top musicians and chamber ensembles.

The impresario who has made this happen for 17 seasons is a tiny dynamo whose mission is, she says, to present “the magic of chamber music the way it was meant to be heard.” Fredda Hyman, a native of New York and a former dancer with American Ballet Theater, started the series soon after moving to her West Loop loft in 1991 where she discovered the space possessed superb acoustics.

The concerts not only let listeners experience chamber music in an intimate setting but provide a venue for young artists to gain valuable exposure toward building a career. Young doesn’t mean novices.  This season, Hyman has presented artists with exceptional promise, many winners of prestigious international awards such as the Naumburg Chamber Music Award (Biava Quartet), first prize winner of the 2008 Chicago Symphony Orchestra Youth Auditions (Gabriel Cabezas), a featured “Rising Star” at the Ravinia Festival (Benjamin Hochman) and the much-celebrated Lincoln Trio, who toured Illinois last year as part of Ravinia’s Lincoln Bicentennial celebration.

One Sunday last month, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the Lincoln Trio give mesmerizing accounts of works by Bloch, Chopin and a premiere by Conrad Tao, a 16-year-old “wunderkind” composer. I sat no more than 15 feet from the performers, felt the energy in their playing as well as a direct emotional connection to the music as each performer attacked the score with visible passion.

Tao is not only a five-time consecutive winner of the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award but Music in the Loft’s Composer-in-Residence. Hyman started the composer-in-residence program in 2002 and commissions’ scores with funding from the NIB Foundation and the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation.

Hyman runs the whole operation out of her loft apartment.  She fields recommendations from artists’ agents locally and in New York, listens to countless CDs to make her artist selections. Then, at each concert, she handles reservations, and also moves through the usually capacity crowd of 100 guests and acts as hostess for a post-concert reception.

MITL is a Chicago gem and a venture worthy of support. You may find this up-close listening experience more moving than a night at a more traditional concert hall and also discover a greater appreciation for the chamber music repertoire. Concerts take place on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon.  The final program this season is Sunday, March 7 and features the Emerald String Quartet, the first prize-winners of the Jules M. Laser Chamber Competition.  Reservations can be made at

This is the second of my reports on rewarding alternative venues worth exploring. I reported last week on jazz artist, Spider Saloff, performing in a River North apartment. Next, I’ll feature an art salon series in a North Side restaurant where art enthusiasts, as poet T. S. Eliot, said “come and go, speaking of Michelangelo” with table partners, sharing good food and wine.