The Top 10 Performances of 2011

Thu Dec 22, 2011 at 5:42 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

1. Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Verdi’s Otello

With Riccardo Muti’s inaugural season as Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director thrown into chaos and uncertainty by the conductor’s two medical emergencies and extended absence, much was riding on these April concert performances of Verdi’s late operatic masterpiece. In his first CSO concert in seven months, Muti answered any skeptics with his dynamic conducting and a full-throttle performance that brought out the seismic dramatic punch and poetic delicacy of Verdi’s score. Backed by an inspired group of singers and brilliant playing and ensemble support from the CSO and CSO Chorus, this memorable Otello was Chicago’s top musical event of 2011.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

2. Susanna Mälkki and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Ives, Musgrave and Strauss

So, we know there is no such thing as a bad Finnish conductor. But even by the high standards of that musically gifted nation, Susanna Mälkki’s sensational October debut with the CSO was a triumph. Her demanding program included the U.S. premiere of Thea Musgrave’s Autumn Sonata (J. Lawrie Bloom, the superb bass clarinet soloist) and Mälkki brought bracing clarity to Charles Ives’ densest contrapuntal thickets and delivered an Also Sprach Zarathustra of extraordinary sweep and Straussian brilliance. Can you spell principal guest conductor?

3. The Pacifica Quartet in Shostakovich’s Quartets Nos. 7 and 10-12.

The Pacifica Quartet’s remarkable survey of Dimitri Shostakovich’s complete string quartets began last October and ended in February of this year. The cycle reached its peak with the penultimate program in mid-February with these young musicians delivering shattering, knife-edged performances that laid bare all the desolation and painful nerve-endings of these works.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

4. Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Mahler’s Symphony No. 9

Bernard Haitink’s majestic June performance of Mahler’s final completed symphony was a testament to the strength of the partnership of the CSO and its former principal conductor in this repertoire. The eloquent, beautifully played Ninth resonated long after the hushed final bars had faded away.

Photo: Jonathan Williams

5. Chicago Opera Theater: Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers

Equal parts opera, theatrical event and electronic art installation, Tod Machover’s envelope-pushing Death and the Powers was the undisputed opera highlight of the year in Chicago. The strange futuristic tale, Machover’s engaging electronic score, and the audacious multimedia staging proved consistently compelling and a highlight of Brian Dickie’s tenure as general director.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

6. Esa-Pekka Salonen and violinist Leila Josefowicz with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra 

Esa-Pekka Salonen was at his finest with the CSO in a February program that featured him in dual roles as composer and conductor. Soloist Leila Josefowicz delivered a blistering Chicago premiere of Salonen’s rock-edged Violin Concerto and the Finnish conductor and CSO followed that with a richly elemental account of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2.

Photo: Dan Rest

7. Lyric Opera of Chicago: Wagner’s Lohengrin 

In the Lyric Opera’s first Lohengrin in thirty years, the company scored its greatest success of 2011 in February with Wagner’s epic tale. The first-class cast was led by Johan Botha who sang magnificently with strength and tenderness in the role of the melancholy title knight.

8. Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

The good thing about Lollapalooza chasing the Grant Park Orchestra underground to the Harris Theater is that it allows an opportunity, sans amplification and al fresco noises, to really appreciate what a terrific orchestra Kalmar has built. With two superb soloists (Alexandra Petersamer and Christian Elsner) Kalmar led a concentrated, beautifully detailed July performance with glorious playing by the Grant Park musicians.

Photo: David Zaugh

9. John Nelson and the Chicago Bach Project: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

Yes, the acoustic was over-resonant, restroom facilities inadequate and parking horrific. It didn’t matter, for conductor John Nelson and Soli Deo Gloria inaugurated a new Holy Week tradition in Chicago with a gleaming, deeply spiritual and wholly idiomatic performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at St. Vincent de Paul Parish.

Photo: David Cortes

10. Fulcrum Point:  Speaking in Tongues

Just by definition new-music concerts are often mixed, uneven affairs but in this March program Fulcrum Point managed to deliver one of the finest contemporary programs of recent seasons with three world premieres. Most notable were Vivian Fung’s engaging Yunan Folk Songs and Geoffrey Gordon’s unapologetically 12-tone Tiger Psalms, the latter given a sterling performance by Julia Bentley.  With artful, non-distracting projections, all the varied works received tight, full-metal performances under Stephen Burns’ focused direction.

Honorable Mentions

Kurt Masur’s memorable Bruckner Fourth with the CSO; Mitsuko Uchida’s effervescent Mozart piano concertos; Christoph von Dohnanyi’s magisterial Brahms at Ravinia; Carlos Kalmar’s powerful Verdi Requiem with the Grant Park Orchestra; the Chicago Chorale’s program of Baltic and Scandinavian music; Stephane Deneve’s impressive CSO debut in a French program; Joyce Di Donato’s engaging recital at Mandel Hall; Chicago a cappella’s program of Jewish sacred music; Yuja Wang’s virtuosic keyboard fireworks; the Lyric Opera’s delightful Magic Flute revival; the Emerson Quartet at Mandel Hall; and the fiery Brahms First Symphony with Larry Rachleff leading the Chicago Philharmonic.

Most Depressing Development

Light Opera Works abandoning — well, light opera, with no staged operetta scheduled in its announced 2012 season.

Most Heartening Development

A healthy Riccardo Muti

Second Most Heartening Development

Three new organizations springing up in this lousy economy: the Haymarket Opera Company, the North Shore Chamber Music Festival and Chroma Chamber Orchestra, all making impressive debuts in 2011.

Once again a heartfelt seasonal thank you to the advertisers whose support of Chicago Classical Review allows us to continue to do what we’re doing. And thanks again to my colleagues, Wynne Delacoma, Dennis Polkow, Bryant Manning, Michael Cameron, Gerald Fisher and all CCR contributors for their dedication, superb writing and musical insight.

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2 Responses to “The Top 10 Performances of 2011”

  1. Posted Dec 23, 2011 at 10:19 am by D Houggy

    Nice list Larry. Thanks to you and CCR for supporting the arts in Chicago!

    Dave

  2. Posted Dec 30, 2011 at 4:21 pm by Katherine Abelson

    Thanks for listing Geoffrey Gordon’s Tiger Psalms. Our foundation has awarded him in the past and eagerly anticipates more exciting compositions from this very original voice.
    Kathy Abelson