Top Ten Performances of 2014

Tue Dec 23, 2014 at 1:40 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mariusz Kwiecien and Andreas Silvestrelli in the Lyric Opera's "Don Giovanni." Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Mariusz Kwiecien and Andrea Silvestrelli in the Lyric Opera’s “Don Giovanni.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg  

1. Mozart: Don Giovanni–Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is currently enjoying one of its finest recent seasons, which launched in September with a terrific new production of Don Giovanni. Mozart’s dramatic comedy is the most difficult of the three da Ponte operas to pull off successfully but Lyric Opera knocked this Giovanni out of the park.

Director Robert Falls’ stylish 1920s updating provided a shot of fresh adrenalin while respecting the source material and avoiding postmodern excess. Mariusz Kwiecien’s decadent, charismatic Don led the large world-beater cast (Kyle Ketelsen, Marina Rebeka, Ana Maria Martinez, Andriana Chuchman and Andrea Silvestrelli) that was without a single weak link. Firing on all cylinders vocally and dramatically, and with Sir Andrew Davis providing refined and flexible Mozart conducting in the pit, Lyric’s Don Giovanni was the top musical event of 2014.

Gianandrea Noseda
Gianandrea Noseda

2. Rossini: William Tell–Teatro Regio Torino

If Lyric’s Don Giovanni offered the most overall successful opera production of 2014, Gianandrea Noseda and his Italian colleagues delivered Chicago’s most sheerly thrilling opera performance of the year with Rossini’s William Tell at the Harris Theater. Even sans sets and costumes, Noseda, the superb Turin orchestra and chorus and a terrific cast made the four hours of Rossini’s musically abundant swan song fly by in a live-wire December event that felt like a rock concert. Why can’t all opera performances be like this? Wow.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

3. Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen: Sibelius, Bartok and Salonen

They may not have been the best-attended Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts of the year but Esa-Pekka Salonen’s two weeks with the CSO in April provided the year’s finest musical rewards on Michigan Avenue. Salonen’s annual appearances are invariably season highlights but the performance of Sibelius’s complete Four Legends from the Kalevala in April was extraordinary even by that high standard. The four sections make a satisfying de facto symphony (predating Sibelius’s numbered works in the genre) and Salonen and the CSO put across the austerity, Northern atmosphere, and tensile power magnificently. Salonen and the orchestra also delivered the raw, primal violence of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite and (the following week) a sensational performance of Salonen’s own remarkable composition, Nyx.


4. Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Manfred Honeck: Beethoven, Strauss and Haydn.

Manfred Honeck again showed his unique ability to brilliantly reinvigorate familiar repertory in December with a thrilling Don Juan and revelatory Beethoven Seventh, leading a clearly fired-up band of CSO musicians.


5. Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin and Sir Mark Elder: Schuman and Ives

April was definitely not the cruelest month for the CSO in 2014 with nearly every program cracking the top ten. In back-to-back programs in April two superb American symphonies received exhilarating performances. Leonard Slatkin led the belated Chicago debut of William Schuman’s Symphony No. 6, a tough, craggy and bleak 1946 work put across with baleful power and decisive impact.


And the following week, Mark Elder led a performance of Ives’ Symphony No. 3 that brought out all the quirky homespun Americana, hymns, march tunes and final rude raspberry with all due raucous tumult and subversive Yankee exuberance. After the Ives performance a young 20-something concertgoer asked me, “Why can’t the CSO play music like this more often?” Why not indeed?

6. Takács Quartet: Haydn, Debussy and Franck

The Takács Quartet has been delivering sterling musical performances for four decades but in its current makeup the chamber ensemble appears to be at its peak, as was shown in an October concert at Symphony Center. Gracious Haydn, a full-blooded account of Franck’s Piano Quintet with Marc-Andre Hamelin and, especially a fresh and illuminating rendering of Debussy’s String Quartet that brought out the strange unease of the work.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

7. Renée Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann concert at Lyric Opera

Renée Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann provided a seminar last March in how to pull off the starry gala thing with terrific singing, wonderful stage chemistry and choice selections. So when are we going to hear the rock-star German tenor in a staged opera performance in Chicago?

8. Grant Park Orchestra and Carlos Kalmar: Elgar

As usual several Grant Park Orchestra performances under Carlos Kalmar could have made the Top Ten in 2014. Pride of place goes to the performance of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in June. Pulling off this challenging and expansive work on Grant Park’s short rehearsal schedule is an admirable feat in itself but Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra also delivered a deep, eloquent and moving performance.

Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

9. Denis Kozhukhin

The Russian pianist made a sensational Chicago debut in November at Mandel Hall in the University of Chicago Presents series. Kozhukhin displayed humor in Haydn and spell-binding virtuosity in two of Prokofiev’s “War” Sonatas. Mark your calendar—he’ll be back in June to perform with the CSO.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

10. Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti: Tchaikovsky at Millennium Park  

It seems that Riccardo Muti’s finest CSO performances of 2014 took place in Europe and not in Chicago. Ironically, it was the all-Tchaikovsky program that opened the CSO season in Millennium Park in September before an audience of 20,000 that showed Muti and the CSO at their best with an intensely dramatic Symphony No. 4 and a hair-raising account of the rarely hear tone poem The Tempest.


Jane Glover and Music of the Baroque in Haydn’s The Creation; Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach in Schubert’s Die schoene Mullerin; Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass from Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra; Donald Runnicles’ Mahler 5 with the CSO; Lyric Opera’s Porgy and Bess; Anne-Sophie Mutter’s The Four Seasons with the Mutter Virtuosi; Riccardo Muti and CSO in Mahler 1; Lyric Opera’s Il Trovatore; Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette by Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra at the Auditorium; a radiant Renee Fleming in Strauss’s talky Capriccio at Lyric Opera; Tchaikovsky’s complete Piano Concerto No. 2 from soloist Natasha Paremski with Kalmar at Grant Park; Cynthia Yeh’s athletic solo turn in James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni Emanuel with the CSO; Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma’s Brahms cello sonatas; countertenor Philippe Jaroussky at Mandel Hall; the Danish String Quartet’s U.S. premiere of Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s Quartet No. 7 at Mandel Hall; pianist Inon Barnatan at the Harris Theater; Evgeny Kissin’s Schubert and Scriabin.


No contest—Lyric Opera. The Lyric has been consistently inconsistent in recent years, often unable to put together a production without a miscast singer, inept stage director or misguided production. With its current successful and innovative season, the company has gotten squarely back on track and reasserted its standing as one of the world’s great houses.


The Chicago Symphony Orchestra had a banner year artistically yet one not without significant backstage drama. Even more unsettling than the CSO charting its largest deficit in a decade, were the exits of several top administration staff in the space of a few months. President and CEO Deborah Rutter left to go to the Kennedy Center, vice-president of artistic planning Martha Gilmer departed after 35 years for the San Diego Symphony and her assistant Nick Winter left to head up artistic planning for the San Francisco Symphony. On the musical side, the CSO has lost or is about to lose three of its finest woodwind principals: bassoonist David McGill to early retirement, Mathieu Dufour to the Berlin Philharmonic and Eugene Izotov to the San Francisco Symphony.

Expect another high-profile shoe to drop in the next couple months. Which begs the question: If everything is so wonderful these days at CSO, why are so many key people running for the exit?


In September, the CSO announced that trustee Randy Berlin and husband Melvin Berlin made a $2 million pledge to the CSO to create the “Randy and Melvin Berlin Family Fund for the Canon,” which will underwrite programs of cornerstone Austro-German works, including this season’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

That’s a fine gesture and generous gift but it raises two issues: First, does the CSO really need to program more standard European repertory? And second, what does auctioning off programming decisions to the highest-bidding donor say about an institution’s artistic integrity?


Chicago Opera Theater’s decision to present Duke Ellington’s unfinished, embarrassingly bereft musical Queenie Pie.

One question: Why?


One expected great things from Gilmore Winner Rafal Blechacz’s local recital debut at Mandel Hall in April. There was plenty of virtuosity and faultless technique but where was the depth, artistry and nuance, in this loud and unvaried sonic assault? Even in music of his compatriot Chopin, the Polish pianist showed little feeling or connection with the music.

This is a Gilmore winner? Not at this concert.


Wendy Lee, whose piano quartet, My Cagey Companions, was performed by the Chicago Ensemble in November.


That Riccardo Muti—or whoever is programming CSO concerts these days—recognizes that for a great American orchestra, performing contemporary and American music should be at least as important a mission as leading high-profile international tours. Let’s hope that the 2015-16 season, which will be announced in a few weeks, and future CSO seasons reflect that reality.


That the city’s leading Baroque ensembles renew and revitalize their missions. Haymarket Opera has been a fine addition to the local music scene yet needs to move beyond its fixation with featherweight pastoral comedies. Likewise Music of the Baroque should look past its overreliance on Mozart masterworks to revive some of the less frequently heard Baroque repertory for which it was founded. So too, MOB needs to cast a broader net of podium guests beyond Jane Glover and Nicholas Kraemer to provide a fresh perspective on their chosen repertoire.


Hanns Eisler’s Fourteen Ways of Describing the Rain may be the composer’s masterpiece. Certainly, the serial sextet sounded like one in the performance by CSO members led by James Conlon at Ravinia’s Martin Theater in July.


VOX 3 Collective’s production of Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade. The Vox 3 forces brightened the new year with a captivating performance of Nielsen’s charming opera and in Danish, no less.


The Third Eye Theatre Company launched itself in October with a riveting performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium.


Both Music of the Baroque and the William Ferris Chorale offered intelligent and dizzyingly wide-ranging Christmas programs this year that proved as intellectually rewarding as they were delightful to hear.


On a personal note I’d like to thank composer Amy Wurtz and the Chicago Q Ensemble for helping to successfully launch the American Music Project in October with the world premiere of Wurtz’s epic and remarkable Piano Quintet, as well as works of Irving Fine and David Diamond at Ganz Hall. Thanks, ladies. It was a blast.

Finally, a big note of gratitude to all my fellow CCR contributors as well as the advertisers whose support for Chicago Classical Review continues to make the website possible–even when they really disliked a column or review.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a healthy and prosperous 2015 to all.

Posted in Articles

3 Responses to “Top Ten Performances of 2014”

  1. Posted Dec 24, 2014 at 12:44 pm by Odradek

    I agree heartily with Item I on the Wish List – as underscored by the great Ives/Schuman performances you listed, both of which I attended. More of this, please.

    Also, Music of the Baroque should either go ahead and rename itself “Music of the Baroque and Classical,” or do some serious re-thinking of its programming. One possible avenue of exploration: programming post-Baroque works that were influenced by the Baroque (such as Beethoven’s mock-Handel “Consecration of the House,” or the various 20th century concerti grossi). Stop playing Mozart, who was in no sense a Baroque composer.

  2. Posted Dec 25, 2014 at 10:23 am by Roland Buck

    “Music of the Baroque should look past its overreliance on Mozart masterworks” RIGHT ON!! One of the main problems with MOB is that Jane Glover would much rather perform Mozart, and even Beethoven than Baroque music. The intrusion of Mozart into January’s concert, which was supposed to be all Handel is the latest offense. Mozart is one of the greatest composers of all time, but his works are a standard and frequently performed part of the repertoire of mainstream orchestras and opera houses. Therefore ONE DOES NOT NEED A SPECIALIZED ORCHESTRA TO PERFORM HIS WORKS.

    The same is not true for Handel and other baroque masters, and therefore Music of the Baroque should concentrate on this music. One can certainly make a case for MOB expanding its programming to perform other, less frequently performed composers of the second half of the 18th century, like, for example, Boccherini and the Stamitzes. And since Haydn is relatively neglected, one can make a case for him. BUT MOZART DOES NOT REQUIRE SUCH TREATMENT!

  3. Posted Dec 26, 2014 at 4:43 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    We should cut Music of the Baroque some slack on the revised January program. When Elizabeth Futral pulled out of the scheduled Dueling Divas concerts, that necessitated some changes and music that could be prepared by Jane Glover with minimal extra rehearsal. In this instance, the Mozart substitutions are understandable.

Leave a Comment