Season of renewal: Marquee names carry Chicago Symphony for 2020-2021

Tue Jan 28, 2020 at 3:00 pm

By John von Rhein

Thomas Adès will conduct his Concerto for Piano with Kirill Gerstein as soloist in March 2021. Photo: Matt Jolly/Wikimedia

The artists and repertoire announced for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2020-21 season – Riccardo Muti’s 11th and penultimate season as music director – will remain true to the Muti-era playbook. The accent will continue to be on the core symphonic literature, with scattered forays into new and unusual music. Mostly familiar guest conductors and soloists again will dominate the roster.

Having posted a sustainable operating deficit of $1.1 million in fiscal 2019 – a loss caused in part by an unprecedented seven-week strike in 2018-19 resulting in the cancellation of 50 ticketed events – management no doubt wants to consolidate gains and forestall losses wherever possible, as the orchestra heads into a new era with an as-yet-unnamed new music director.

Which is not to say that the orchestra’s 130th season, announced today, slights connoisseurs or is lacking in musical serendipity.

Highlights include the world premieres of CSO-commissioned works by the multi-cultural American composer Gabriela Lena Frank (November 5-8) and Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg (May 20-25, 2021), along with the first CSO performances of Her Story, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Julia Wolfe (February 26-27, 2021). The Wolfe work, a co-commission with four other major U.S. orchestras, commemorates the centennial of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing American women the right to vote. Marin Alsop, of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and São Paolo State Symphony Orchestra, conducts.

Also of exceptional interest is the CSO podium debut of British composer and conductor Thomas Adès, who will lead the local premiere of his recent Concerto for Piano, with its dedicatee, Kirill Gerstein, as soloist (March 25-30, 2021). Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the first CSO performances of his own Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, a semi-staged piece for vocal ensemble, “bar band” and chamber orchestra based on a poem by Carl Sandburg (December 10-12).

Conductors making their Chicago Symphony debuts include Jane Glover, music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque (December 3-8); Lahav Shani, chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and music director designate of the Israel Philharmonic (May 13-16); and Fabien Gabel, music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec.

Manfred Honeck of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra returns to the CSO podium February 2021. Photo: Felix Broede

Returning podium guests in addition to Alsop include Xian Zhang (October 29-31), Edo de Waart (December 17-19), Manfred Honeck (February 18-23, 2021) and Tugan Sokhiev (April 22-24, 2021).

With the exception of Honeck (the highly-regarded Austrian-born chief of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, whose CSO subscription program will include the Bruckner Symphony No. 7), few if any of the guest conductors are likely to be on the search committee’s short list of international candidates for Muti’s job.

The maestro will conclude his and the orchestra’s season-spanning celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with the composer’s towering Missa Solemnis, presented by vocal soloists and the Chicago Symphony Chorus (September 24-26). Director Duain Wolfe’s massed voices also will take part in the first CSO performances of Luigi Cherubini’s rarely heard Mass for the Coronation of Charles X on March 4-6, 2021 with Muti, long an ardent champion of his Italian countryman’s music, conducting.    

Additional highlights of Muti’s 10 weeks of subscription concerts – grouped into fall, winter and spring residencies – include Varèse’s Arcana (October 1-2), Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 (March 9, 2021) and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony (September 18, 20). The maestro will lead CSO principal timpanist David Herbert and principal tuba Gene Pokorny on January 14-16 in concertos by William Kraft and Lalo Schifrin, respectively. He will open the season September 17 with the annual free Concert for Chicago in Millennium Park and conclude it June 10-13 with a concert of Italian opera selections; Krassimira Stoyanova and Francesco Meli are the vocal soloists. 

Guest artists for the coming CSO season include pianists Yefim Bronfman (October 1-2), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (January 28-31, 2021) and Daniil Trifonov (June 3-5, 2021); violinists Janine Jansen (April 1-3, 2021) and Vilde Frang (May 20-25, 2021); cellist Gautier Capuçon (December 13); organist Paul Jacobs (December 3-8); and singers Matthew Polenzani (September 24-26), Alice Coote (October 22-27) and Anita Rachvelishvili (March 4-6, 2021). 

The orchestra again will move its MusicNOW contemporary classical series to the Harris Theater for Music and Dance for four programs in October, November, April and May, performed by CSO members and guest artists. Curating the concerts will be the next CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence, who is expected to be announced later this season.

The 90th season of Symphony Center Presents again will comprise piano, chamber music, orchestras, jazz and special concerts by visiting musicians.

The heavyweight slate of visiting orchestras holds a welcome return of the venerable Berlin Philharmonic, under its new chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko (November 15). Also returning will be the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg, under its artistic and general director, Valery Gergiev on February 14, 2021. Rounding out the series will be the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, directed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin on March 13, 2021.

Pianist Anna Vinnitskaya makes her Chamber series debut in November. Photo: Gila Megrelidze

Anchoring the piano series will be such household names as Leif Ove Andsnes (January 24), Emanuel Ax (March 14, 2021) and Evgeny Kissin (April 18, 2021). Newcomers include pianists Anna Vinnitskaya (November 1) and Seong-Jin Cho (March 28, 2021). For the Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music series, violinist Joshua Bell teams with pianist Alessio Jax on October 18; the Thibaudet-Batiashvili-Capuçon piano trio joins the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on December 13; and the Jerusalem Quartet with guests Pinchas Zukerman, violin and viola, and Amanda Forsyth, cello perform April 25, 2021.

After an absence of several seasons, superstar pianist Lang Lang will return for a special concert on March 7, 2021. Also returning will be the China NCPA Orchestra conducted by Lu Jia (October 25), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (January 26) and violinist Itzhak Perlman with klezmer ensemble (May 2, 2021).

The CSO at the Movies series will feature live-in-concert, full-orchestra soundtracks to the films Star Wars: The Force Awakens (November 27-29, The Wizard of Oz (April 9, 11) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (May 27-29). 

Subscriptions are on sale now. Single tickets go on sale August 12. For further information visit; 312-294-3000.

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