Top Ten Performances of 2021

Wed Dec 22, 2021 at 1:42 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti addressed the audience before the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert in September. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

1. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.” Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Season-opening programs inevitably have a sense of occasion and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s leadoff event in September had even more significance than usual with Riccardo Muti directing his first local CSO concert in 19 months due to the coronavirus.

Yet the evening’s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 was anything but empty symbolism. Muti and the players dug deep into this “Eroica” delivering a tough, stoic performance that made this cornerstone symphony seem remarkably fresh and of the moment. 

From the stark bite of the two opening chords, Muti led a performance of bristling drama and urgency with a restless sweep propelling the opening movement. Rarely have the quirky variations of the finale worked better or sounded more suitable or justified. The Marcia funebre was a compelling and deeply moving journey, somehow seeming to encapsulate what all of us have been going through for the past year and a half.

Jakub Hrůša led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Dvořák, Barber and Coleridge-Taylor. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

2. Music of Dvořák, Barber and Coleridge-Taylor. Jakub Hrůša and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Anticipation was high for Jakub Hrůša’s return to Chicago in November after an outstanding debut leading Smetana’s Ma vlast in 2018. If anything, the charismatic Czech conductor’s sophomore stand proved even more impressive. Hrůša led clear-cut, tautly focused performances, uncovering a wealth of scoring details in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and making an exhilarating case for Dvořák’s rarely heard Symphony No. 6.

Nicholas Phan performed Nico Muhly’s song cycle Stranger at the Collaborative Works Festival. Photo: Atlas Arts Media

3. Collaborative Works Festival: “Strangers in a Strange Land”.

The enterprising Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago explored the migrant experience as reflected in classical vocal music from the English Renaissance through Schubert to Ruth Crawford Seeger and the local premieres of absorbing song cycles by Errolyn Wallen and Nico Muhly. 

The performers for the opening recital of CAIC’s 10th anniversary festival in September included tenor and CAIC artistic director Nicholas Phan and mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms. Both were superb. Migrant journeys were explored, painful truths lost to history unearthed and timely resonances created, and Phan and friends have brought us no more thoughtful or absorbing a program. (John von Rhein)

Erica Schuller as Dorinda in Haymarket Opera’s Orlando. Photo: Anna Cillan

4. Handel’s Orlando. Haymarket Opera Company.  

With Chicago’s two largest opera companies having lost their way (and their audiences) with Eurotrash stagings and/or dubious programming, only Haymarket Opera has stayed true to its central mission of presenting baroque opera in a traditional period-conscious manner. As other music organizations returned to live performances this year, Haymarket Opera stuck with the filmed stage performances that have worked for them during the pandemic. 

The company closed its all-Handel 10th anniversary season in September with a magnificent streamed performance of the composer’s epic Orlando. As the title hero, countertenor Bejun Mehta, in his signature role, led a near-ideal cast of company regulars. Conducted with vitality and great sensitivity by Craig Trompeter, this polished, richly lyrical and highly engaging performance provided Chicago’s finest operatic event of 2021.

Magnus Lindberg. Photo: Hanya Chlala

5. Magnus Lindberg’s Serenades. Hannu Lintu and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

New music has been getting belated attention at Orchestra Hall in the waning years of Riccardo Muti’s CSO tenure. In December, Hannu Lintu led the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Serenades. Despite its mellow-sounding title, this CSO co-commission is a roiling work, with brassy outbursts and whirlwind virtuosity tailor-made for the CSO musicians. Lintu and the orchestra gave the Finnish composer’s showpiece a superb sendoff in a program that also included a fresh and deep-textured Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and enjoyable romp through Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole by violinist Ray Chen.

Carlso Kalmar conducted Grant Park forces in Handel’s Te Deum in August. Photo: Patrick Pyszka

6. Handel: “Dettingen” Te Deum. Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus, Carlos Kalmar.

Local Handelians were lucky this year not only with Haymarket Opera’s Orlando but with the Grant Park Music Festival’s majestic performance of Handel’s Te Deum in August. The Te Deum for the Victory at the Battle of Dettingen in D major is an oddity, a not quite convincing mix of pious homilies and (ill-founded) martial victory celebration. Yet much of the music is terrific and Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Chorus and Orchestra delivered a rousing and magnificent festival premiere, closing their 2021 season—after a one-year pandemic hiatus—in grand style.

Denis Matsuev performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Manfred Honeck and the CSO. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

7. Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3. Denis Matusev, Manfred Honeck and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In 1921 Sergei Prokofiev was the soloist in the world premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. One could hardly conceive a more apt or thrilling centennial commemoration than Denis Matsuev’s thunderbolt-hurling rendition of Prokofiev’s spiky showpiece, with Manfred Honeck and the orchestra lending comparably fizzing support. The unsentimental yet deeply felt rendering of Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony on the same program was just as successful.

Alexander Hanna was the soloist in Missy Mazzoli’s Dark with Excessive Bright in a streamed concert in June. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

8. Mazzoli: Dark with Excessive Bright. Alexander Hanna, double-bass; Edwin Outwater and Chicago Symphony Orchestra members

The number of first-class double-bass concertos is roughly analogous to the number of competent political leaders in current city and county government. Yet in a streaming June performance, Missy Mazzoli’s Dark with Excessive Bright delivered the most convincing concerto for the unwieldy solo instrument in decades. Mazzoli’s 13-minute work mines the Baroque concerto grosso idiom yet also offers a concise distillation of the romantic concerto with grand gestures, cantabile lyricism and even a show-offy cadenza—all given rich and eloquent advocacy by CSO principal Alexander Hanna with CSO colleagues ably directed by Edwin Outwater.

Vadim Gluzman, Angela Yoffe and Wendy Warner performing Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 39 at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival. Photo: NSCMF

9. North Shore Chamber Music Festival finale. Music of Haydn, Dohnanyi and Brahms

   The North Shore Chamber Music Festival marked its 10th anniversary season a year late due to the pandemic closings of 2020. Yet even with much last-minute reshuffling of artists, the closing concert in June was in the Northbrook festival’s best tradition— serving up a winning performance of a Haydn trio, a rollicking take on Erno van Dohnanyi’s antic Sextet and a rendering of Brahms’ Piano Quintet that ideally balanced fiery virtuosity and reflective lyricism.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra members performed Schubert’s String Quintet in the opening Rush Hour Concert at St. James Cathedral. Photo: Elliot Mandel

10. Schubert: String Quintet in C major. Chicago Symphony Orchestra members. Rush Hour Concerts

Ad-hoc chamber groups are sometimes a mixed bag but the live-streamed (and in-person) season-opening performance of the Rush Hour Concerts in June showed that lightning can strike in such events. A lineup of Chicago Symphony Orchestra members (associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong, violinist Gina DiBello, violist Lawrence Neuman, and cellists Brant Taylor and assistant principal Kenneth Olsen) delivered a Schubert performance of polished precision that was grand in scale yet rendered with affecting intimacy. The celebrated Adagio was sublime, the musicians ideally capturing an existential feeling of time standing still.

Honorable Mentions

One bright spot amid Chicago Opera Theater’s continuing artistic disarray (see below) came with the live-streamed performance of Daniel Catán’s La hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini’s Daughter) in April— well cast, smartly staged and faultlessly executed at the Field Museum.

In a year rich with first-class solo outings, three more should be noted: Hilary Hahn launched her CSO artist in residency with an individual yet deep-textured take on Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in December. Also noteworthy was pianist Lukáš Vondráček’s fresh and quirky take on Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and the Chicago-born Anthony McGill’s blazingly virtuosic Copland Clarinet Concerto, both with the CSO under Marin Alsop at Ravinia in July.

Delayed by the pandemic, music of outgoing composer-in-residence Missy Mazzoli was finally performed live by a full CSO in October. In a muscular local premiere under Riccardo Muti, Mazzoli’s These Worlds In Us (2006), displayed the composer’s audacious confidence and already-mature individuality in her first work for orchestra.

The closing recital of the Collaborative Works Festival was a stand-out on this year’s calendar. Artistic director and tenor Nicholas Phan joined soprano Helen Zhibing, mezzo Amanda Lynn Bottoms, pianist Shannon McGinnis, and violinist Adriane Post for a thoughtful program at Ganz Hall. This roster gave superb advocacy to songs in the folk tradition from Bartok, Britten, Gabriela Lena Frank, Ginastera, and others, capping the festival with intelligence and trademark vocal splendor. (Tim Sawyier)

Missy Mazzoli wrapped up her Covid-curtailed composer-in-residency with a MusicNOW program made up of recent chamber, choral and instrumental works that were to have been performed the previous season. Mazzoli’s streamed curatorial swan song proved a highly stimulating aural adventure. (John von Rhein)

The rising young South Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim made a most impressive Chicago debut with the Grant Park Orchestra in Dvorak’s “New World” symphony; and, in a separate concert, the splendid Grant Park Chorus ennobled Schubert’s Mass in G and Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb under the tender ministrations of festival artistic director Carlos Kalmar.  (JvR)

Garrick Ohlsson reopened the Ravinia Festival (which had been shuttered in 2020) with the first of four recitals devoted to solo piano works of Brahms. The veteran American pianist delivered deeply considered renditions of Brahmsiana both familiar and seldom-heard. (JvR)

Worst Welcoming Statement 

Conductor and Ear Taxi Festival curatorial director Michael Lewanski managed to nearly single-handedly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory before the new-music festival even opened, with an uber-woke and tortuously academic Curatorial Statement that accused the entire classical music industry of—you guessed it—racism, as well as being “among the most imperialist and oppressive fields in contemporary culture.” Even conservatory buildings and classical venues are racist, says Lewanski, since “Schools of music, concert halls, and other musical institutions are located on land stolen from Native people.”

Best New Music Event

Despite Lewanski’s self-flagellation, the Mainstage Series of the second Ear Taxi Festival in September-October proved largely successful, managing to serve up a dizzying plethora of fascinating new works, intriguing world premieres, and heartening discoveries of gifted young Chicago composers. Let’s please have Ear Taxi Festival III in 2023.

Worst Opera Production

It’s hard to fathom what prompted Chicago Opera Theater music director Lidiya Yankovskaya to throw the company’s resources behind the company’s silly, misbegotten Carmen in September. This Diva Indulgence—a stripped-down concert version, loosely based on the Bizet opera—stretched dramatic credulity well past the snapping point. Even if one were willing to accept the notion of Jamie Barton as a camp Carmen, what was one to make of her colleague Stephanie Blythe venturing Don José (as her tenoral alter ego “Blythely Orantonio”) in a fake beard and white tennis slippers, glumly stalking Barton’s gypsy vamp between music stands? Bizet’s Greatest Hit survived—barely—but these admired American mezzos may wish to leave this COT travesty off their resumes. (John von Rhein)

Second Worst Opera Production 

Lyric Opera, a perennial winner in this category, may have ceded the top prize to COT’s Carmen this year but Lyric’s widely reviled Magic Flute in November gave that Bizet debacle serious competition. With a decent cast miniaturized against massive, garish and unfunny animation that had little to do with Mozart’s opera, there was zero humanity, romantic sweetness or Masonic gravitas in this high-tech Hindenburg.  

Worst Management Decision

Nothing succeeds like failure at Lyric Opera. Chicago’s opera audiences are among the most knowledgeable and sophisticated in the country—unfortunately, that doesn’t extend to the Lyric board of directors who secretly renewed the contract of general director Anthony Freud this fall for five years without any public announcement. Extending the unpopular British administrator’s tenure through 2026 only goes to show that Lyric board members are as clueless and out of touch with their audience as the company’s chief executive.

Best Podium Debut

Anna Rakitina led the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in a fresh and powerful Tchaikovsky Fifth in October.

You Can’t Keep a Good Baroque Ensemble Down Award

While many music organizations demonstrated ingenuity in revising programs and switching to streaming events during the pandemic, no one outdid Music of the Baroque. Under executive director Declan McGovern and music director Dame Jane Glover, MOB changed its 2020-21 season lineup no less than four times to meet evolving Covid-19 mandates, yet still managed to present a full season of live-streamed concerts.

All Good Chamber Things Must Come to an End

The venturesome Spektral Quartet, which gave Chicago a memorable cycle of Schoenberg quartets and the belated local premiere of Morton Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet No. 2, announced that they would disband at the end of the 2021-22 season.


During the Covid-19 pandemic, most Chicago music organizations, large and small, rose to the seemingly impossible challenges of continuing to present performances under rapidly shifting public health circumstances and state and local capacity restrictions.

A few groups went on hiatus but most shifted to streaming and/or smaller-scale events. It’s a testament to the success of these efforts that four of this year’s Top Ten performances were either streamed or available online in addition to the in-person event.

Chicago is a city with some serious problems right now. But one should be heartened by the flexibility, perseverance and can-do attitude demonstrated by so many arts industry leaders and musicians who continued to play great music and find new ways to get performances out to their audiences.

On a more personal front, a deep note of gratitude to those music groups and organizations who—even when they were going through arduous circumstances themselves—continued their advertising support of Chicago Classical Review (as well as the other Classical Review sites), which allowed us to continue our arts coverage, albeit in scaled-down fashion, during the darkest days of the pandemic.

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5 Responses to “Top Ten Performances of 2021”

  1. Posted Dec 22, 2021 at 2:00 pm by John

    Wow! I’m stunned that anything could have trumped the Lyric in the “worst production” category.

    Fortunately, more years of the ruinous Freud administration will provide many new opportunities for additional lows.

  2. Posted Dec 22, 2021 at 4:31 pm by James Weiss

    This could not be more spot on if I wrote it myself. That COT Carmen may be the worst opera production I’ve seen in a decade. I’m also getting tired of Jamie Barton’s “magical mystery tour” of eccentric performances. Where is the Stephanie Blythe of the great Kate Smith concert or Fricka? I’m expecting her to do Falstaff next or Gianni Schicchi.

    This was the year I switched my financial support from LOC—after 30 years—to Haymarket. The Lyric’s woke BLM statement of 2020 was bad enough but more Freud and in secret? No more.

    Muti and CSO made me see Eroica anew. That’s hard to do. Bravi!

  3. Posted Dec 22, 2021 at 8:42 pm by Brandon

    Great review and I agree on your list of best concerts! Still puzzled at the extreme visceral reactions to progressive attitudes in social injustice and bold new productions. Lyric and COT are raising the bar for new interesting staging, so much better than the stale old approach. I saw the productions despised here and had an opposite, engaged, invigorating sensation that gave me hope for Chicago as a center for new ideas.

  4. Posted Dec 27, 2021 at 10:18 pm by Candice

    That Ear Taxi statement is ridiculous. The points are correct, but of course like every new musician, they have to prove that they are the smartest person in the room. The ridiculously pretentious writing style completely obfuscates all of the valid points being made.

  5. Posted Jan 04, 2022 at 2:08 pm by Victor T.


    I agree with both your sentiments.

    I also thought that the Magic Flute was a remarkable achievement. It may be one of the most memorable performances I have seen in my 15 years as a subscriber. It took the two parts of the Opera that don’t work, the Magic stuff that cannot be really replicated on stage and the Spiel part which makes it clunky; and re-envisioned it as a silent movie.

    People have always read too much into it, ascribing all kinds of profundity to the libretto. And they get all huffy when it is presented as a crowd pleaser entertainment as envisioned by Schikaneder.

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