Top Ten Performances of 2016
Even with the continuing disappointment of Riccardo Muti’s repetitive and unadventurous programs, when the current music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is on and in his element, there are few things better.
Such was the case with the April concert performances of Falstaff, the final installment in Muti’s traversal of Verdi’s three Shakespeare operas, which marked the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death almost to the day. No costumes or sets were needed with Ambrogio Maestri–the leading Falstaff of our era–as a larger-than-life Sir John heading up a terrific, largely Italian cast. Muti led a witty, sparkling, wholly delightful performance of Verdi’s comedic swan song, with the CSO musicians at their considerable finest, fully in synch with the quicksilver score. Muti has never seemed happier in his Chicago tenure than leading these concerts, which take the prize as the top musical event of the year.
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s annual two weeks with the CSO invariably offer season highlights and so it proved again. The apex of last season’s variable retrospective of CSO premieres was the February performance of Witold Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 3, revealed once again to be a work of power, individuality and dramatic intensity under Salonen’s exacting direction. The Finnish conductor and the CSO also put across the joyous sonic fury of Salonen’s own Foreign Bodies, and Yo-Yo Ma offered an uncommonly fresh and probing take on Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1.
In addition to his mastery in Ravel and Debussy, Charles Dutoit has a terrific way with music of Igor Stravinsky, as shown in his May CSO program devoted to the Russian composer. The Swiss conductor drew a performance of the complete Firebird ballet that brought out the iridescent, richly layered colors of the original scoring and showed how much wonderful music exists that is not included in the familiar suites. The bracing performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C–a work written for the CSO’s 50th anniversary–was a terrific bonus.
Stepping out of their safe space of populist Mozart, Bach and Handel, Jane Glover led Music of the Baroque in one of their most vibrant and impressive performances of recent seasons with Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers in April. Glover’s arrangements brought out the tangy timbres and varied hues of the period-instrument ensemble and the soloists and MOB Chorus delivered all the myriad riches of Monteverdi’s glorious, ground-breaking score.
For those who judge opera performances by ambitious scale and good intentions, Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Berlioz’s Les Troyens were the year’s big hits. Granted, they were this fall’s most anticipated and talked-about Lyric Opera events, and while both shows fielded strong casts, neither opera was especially well served by its production.
The most all-around successful opera performance of 2016 was Lyric’s Don Quichotte in November. While Massenet’s intimate take on Cervantes’ Don Quixote may not be a masterpiece of the first order, the opera is vibrant with a touching humanity, rising to moments as beautiful as any in the French composer’s Manon and Werther. Ferruccio Furlanetto etched another unforgettable portrayal as a dignified, charming and ultimately heartbreaking knight of the woeful countenance, a performance to stand with his memorable Boris Godunov of 2011. Clementine Margaine made a most impressive debut as the Don’s beloved Dulcinee, the opera benefited from a picturesque traditional staging, and Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra delivered a glowing, sumptuous performance of Massenet’s score.
In his first concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 17 years, Gennady Rozhdestvensky led performance of the first and last symphonies (Nos. 1 and 15) of his friend and compatriot, Dmitri Shostakovich in February. While the Russian conductor deftly reconciled the satiric and valedictory elements of the Fifteenth Symphony, it was the performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 that proved most revelatory. Rozhdestvensky uncovered a striking depth and expressive richness beneath the brash, surface energy that made one view this work by the 19-year-old composer in a completely new light.
Performing just one of Brahms’ mighty piano quartets is a daunting task for even the finest musicians. But pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and three colleagues tackled all three of Brahms’ works in the genre in an April marathon concert at Orchestra Hall. Andsnes, violinist James Ehnes, violist Tabea Zimmermann and cellist Clemens Hagen displayed extraordinary stamina, ensemble teamwork, technical polish and fizzing virtuosity, without neglecting the composer’s lyrical vein and stoic melancholy.
James Levine’s homecoming to Ravinia this past summer may have been the more emotional event, but it was the conductor’s November return to lead the CSO downtown that delivered the more successful performances. Just when one thought there was nothing new to say about the Symphonie fantastique, the Met’s former music director led a fresh, thrilling performance that brought out all the brilliance, weirdness and Dionysian fervor of Berlioz’s singular score. The knife-edged performance of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra was just as memorable.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vespers--or All-Night Vigil–is an outlier in the Russian composer’s oeuvre, an hour-long choral work consisting of Russian Orthodox chants and monastic themes of Rachmaninoff’s own invention. Bruce Tammen and the Chicago Chorale made an eloquent case for this dark-textured score in March with a moving, beautifully sung and scrupulously rehearsed performance.
Javier Camarena made his belated Chicago debut in March to a packed house at the Harris Theater. The program may have been on the light side–with the second half devoted entirely to Tosti songs–but no one was complaining as the high-voiced Mexican tenor threw out top C’s effortlessly and charmed the audience with his glorious singing, ebullient personality, and some old-fashioned showmanship.
Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov playing Beethoven violin sonatas at Mandel Hall. Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Ferris Chorale’s performance of Arvo Part’s Berliner Messe. Richard Goode’s Bach recital. Christopher Trapani’s Waterlines at MusicNOW. David Fray’s program of Boulez, Bach and Schoenberg. Music of the Baroque’s Purcell program led by Paul Agnew. Contempo’s wild night of theatrical 20th-century avant-garde works at Mandel Hall.
With CSO: Jonathan Nott’s program of Strauss’s Heldenleben and Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C with Johannes Moser; Manfred Honeck’s Tchaikovsky 6; Susanna Mälkki’s Scheherazade; Riccardo Muti in Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette; Michael Tilson Thomas’s Sibelius Second; Mozart and Beethoven concertos by Till Fellner and Martin Helmchen, respectively.
Under Joshua Bell, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields’ playing was of the highest order at the Harris Theater. Their readings of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony and Beethoven’s Eighth teemed with vitality, and Bell also delivered a dynamic performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s superlative performance of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony under Mariss Jansons at Orchestra Hall was a symphonic highlight of the past year. (Tim Sawyier)
The Ashman Cometh
Roger Kaiser created a panic at the Metropolitan Opera in October when the Dallas opera fan sprinkled a white powder in and around the Met orchestra pit. It turns out Kaiser was distributing the ashes of an opera-loving friend, but the bizarre event led to the evacuation of the house, police and terrorism investigators being called in, and the cancellation of two Met performances.
Rumors arose that Kaiser had sprinkled his friend’s ashes in other major opera houses, including Lyric Opera. Repeated queries to the usually responsive Lyric press office were completely ignored–which sounded like, “He did it here too, but we really don’t want to talk about it.”
Good Intentions Award
The inaugural Ear Taxi Festival, curated by Augusta Read Thomas and Stephen Burns, served up dozens of world premieres over its weeklong run in October. While this ambitious and laudable enterprise spotlighted numerous local composers and ensembles, it was hard to avoid the thought that much of the new music performed simply wasn’t very good.
Maybe the issue isn’t a lack of performance opportunities for new music so much as the dearth of good music being written.
Just Declare Victory Award
Lyric Opera posted a $22 million loss in 2016 in what the company CFO called a “break-even year.”
Buddy, Can You Spare a PR Director?
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra administration used to be one of the most stable enclaves in the business but virtually the entire artistic and top managerial staff has headed for the exit since Riccardo Muti arrived in Chicago. Most conspicuous is the revolving door at public relations where the orchestra has burned through three PR directors in as many years and is currently looking for a fourth.
Suggestions: Have a more reasonable expectation as to what a PR director can accomplish in a time of declining audiences and drastic media downsizing. Also draw a firm boundary that will limit a mercurial music director’s hiring and firing authority strictly to orchestra personnel.
When Budget Cuts Show
Wagner’s music was well served by Lyric Opera’s Das Rheingold, the first installment of the company’s new Ring cycle, which delivered strong singing by a largely excellent cast. Unfortunately, the production wasn’t on the same level with some striking visuals but far too much jokey, postmodern sniggery. Most disappointing was the anticlimactic, decidedly cheesy Rainbow Bridge finale. Note: If you have to cut a production’s budget, don’t do it with the gods’ ascent to Valhalla.
Artists Taking Themselves Way Too Seriously Award
Joyce DiDonato brought sensational singing of Baroque opera arias to the Harris Theater in December in an artsy and pretentious staged show that was equal parts diva camp and a self-consciously grandiose “plea for peace.”
Best Conducting Debuts
Edward Gardner in Lyric’s Der Rosenkavalier; David Afkham with CSO; Enrique Mazzola in Lyric’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
Most Exciting Female Opera Performance
No contest. Tatiana Serjan as a sexy, dangerous, magnificently sung Abigaille in Lyric Opera’s Nabucco.
Most Exciting Male Opera Performance
Piotr Beczała delivered a bel canto seminar in Lyric’s Lucia with elegant, sensitive and dramatically incisive vocalism.
Most Exciting Instrumental Performance
Denis Kozhukhin’s barnstorming keyboard fury in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the CSO.
Same Old, Same Old
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced a 2016-17 season where the spotlighted composers would be Beethoven, Brahms and Prokofiev. Is that different from any other CSO season?
Not So Same Old
Financial issues apart, Lyric Opera broke out of the humdrum repertory and uneven casting of recent seasons and is acting like a first-tier international company once again under Anthony Freud. In this fall alone, the company launched a new Ring cycle with Das Rheingold, mounted superb revivals of Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Quichotte, and presented the belated Chicago debut of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens with a sensational cast and superb conducting by Andrew Davis.
Pierre Boulez’s passing in January marked the end of an era for a towering 20th-century musical figure who enjoyed a close and artistically important relationship with the CSO for over four decades. David Danzmayr departed the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra after raising the orchestra’s profile, repertory reach and performance standard over his four-year tenure. Paul French left the William Ferris Chorale after 11 seasons of excellence, leaving the venerable chorus’s future uncertain. And it was the final season for the long-troubled Baroque Band.
Best Continuing Local Development
The ongoing contributions of Chicago’s storefront opera companies, which continue to present intriguing works in mostly impressive performances. Chicago Fringe Opera gave us a riveting staging of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony in May and an excellent local premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar in October. Also in October, Third Eye Theatre Ensemble presented the local debut of Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters.
The Cubs won the World Series and three Chicago chamber ensembles–The Lincoln Trio, the Spektral Quartet and Third Coast Percussion—were nominated for classical Grammys.
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