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Classical: Top 11 stories of 2011

Riccardo Muti leads Chicago Symphony OrchestrSymphony Center September. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Symphony Center in September. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 1, 2012 8:03AM

When a classical artist makes the worldwide front pages in this pop-culture-dominated world — and not once but several times in a single year — it’s clear what your top classical story is. When those newsmaking stories were as varied as they were, from near-tragedy to tremendous accolades, you can see why Riccardo Muti holds a double-sized spot on our 2011 Classical Top 11.

1. The pulse of Riccardo Muti: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new music director had already raised eyebrows in fall 2010 when, citing intense abdominal pain, he had to bow out of the CSO’s opening-night gala just before concert time and then flew back to his native Italy for medical treatment. So when he collapsed during a CSO rehearsal in February, concerns grew about his health and future here. Doctors at Northwestern found and repaired an irregular heartbeat, installing a pacemaker, and repaired multiple facial and jaw fractures. Muti called it “destiny.”

The music director’s make-good was major. Triumphant concert performances of Verdi’s “Otello” were repeated at New York’s Carnegie Hall in the spring. A full Chicago education and outreach schedule had him leading youth concerts and playing piano for and meeting with incarcerated teens at the state youth facility in Warrenville. This fall, Muti launched the CSO’s season at a South Side African-American church; he spent much of the rest of the year picking up awards, including those from Opera News, his first-ever Grammys (two) with the CSO for the Verdi Requiem, the Prince of Asturias prize for arts in Spain, a humanitarian prize in Sicily and $1 million from the Birgit Nilsson Foundation in Sweden for a lifetime of accomplishments.

2. New operatic sheriffs in town: After a literal lifetime of service to Lyric Opera of Chicago, William Mason retired and was succeeded by the company’s first-ever leader from outside the fabled house on Wacker Drive. Anthony Freud, with long experience in his native Britain and at Houston Grand Opera, brings tremendous passion, new ideas about community engagement and a constant presence across the local arts scene. Meanwhile, Chicago Opera Theater landed another high-energy import, the Viennese-born Andreas Mitisek, who from mid-2012 will divide, or probably multiply, his time between COT and his innovative Long Beach Opera in Southern California.

3. An artistic savior’s immiment farewell: When Brian Dickie arrived in Chicago over a decage ago, he was already a legend in the opera world, with a lengthy career in Britain, Ireland, Europe and Canada. He made big but sensible promises about what he would do as general director of Chicago Opera Theater and fulfilled every one of them: sparkling productions on a shoestring budget; the introduction of new young artists, and directors and designers new to opera; Chicago premieres of new and contemporary works and of those over 300 years old. He also moved productions to the Harris Theater in high-profile Millennium Park. With one more exciting season to go, he hands his successor a strong artistic enterprise that just needs some additional fund-raising success. Chicago is in Dickie’s debt.

4. A hero’s return: As principal conductor, Bernard Haitink, with key help from conductor emeritus Pierre Boulez, held the fort at Orchestra Hall following Daniel Barenboim’s departure. After some difficult back problems, it was great to see the Dutch master, now in his early 80s, return throughout 2011, restored to excellent condition and leading unforgettable performances of Mahler, Brahms and Haydn, among others. He’s down for continuing his association with the CSO well into the future, and for that, hurrah.

5. The heft of “Hercules”: After recent Lyric Opera seasons that have been too dull or predictable, the Chicago premiere of Handel’s “Hercules” in March was astonishing. Director Peter Sellars, conductor Harry Bicket and a tremendous cast led by bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Lucy Crowe showed not only what a beautiful and compelling work this is, but how in these days of endless international conflict, war really does follow every participant home.

6. WFMT’s 60th anniversary:

Yes, I work for them, too. But if you worked for De Beers, you couldn’t deny that they sell diamonds. Unique in the country and even the world, WFMT-FM (98.7) has been broadcasting the same format of classical music and fine arts programming since it signed on from a West Side hotel on Dec. 13, 1951. A commercial station that in recent decades took on not-for-profit status, it has had so many firsts (including the first station anywhere to play a CD, in 1982) and lists of awards that fill pages. Home to everyone from Mike Nichols to Studs Terkel to vocal guru Andy Karzas to “The Midnight Special” folk and comedy programs, it’s added more and more live broadcasts to a lineup that finds its 340,000 listeners and 43,000 members locking in their dials and renewing their memberships in record numbers.

7. The primacy of the Grant Park Music Festival: While Highland Park’s Ravinia came through on occasion, only the scrappy Grant Park Music Festival offered 10 solid weeks of top-flight classical orchestral fare all summer. With principal conductor Carlos Kalmar adding the artistic director title and chorus director Christopher Bell joining Kalmar in the second-decade club, the free-concert folks at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park brought in tens of thousands for challenging programs of Schoenberg, opera excerpts, Verdi, Latin composers and the don’t-tell-me-you’d-ever-heard-of Franz Schmidt’s 1930s oratorio “The Book With Seven Seals.”

8. The guidance of Paul Lewis: The British pianist continued to make Chicago a base of his ongoing survey of late Schubert works while showing that he is one of the best artists of his generation on any instrument. Never dull, he’s an anchor of the Symphony Center Presents programs and a youthful guide to the core repertoire for new audiences.

9. The ubiquity of Yo-Yo Ma: As the CSO’s first Judson and Joyce Green creative consultant, the international superstar cellist is in and out of Chicago so often that you expect to run into him in line at Potbelly. Whipping up a broad array of formal and informal connections with young musicians and underserved communities, he has adults signing up for his Citizen Musician concept, coaches students one on one and leads cellphone-driven barn-storming of commuter rail stations. His Youth in Music Festival brought orchestras from Mexico to work and jam with their Civic Orchestra counterparts. And he’s only begun.

10. The rise of Pacifica Quartet: Based at the universities of Illinois and Chicago, the ensemble moves from strength to strength. Already known for its daring (a full evening of all six of Elliott Carter’s string quartets?) and stamina (full cycles of Mendelssohn and Beethoven), the Pacifica consolidated its position as one of the country’s top foursomes with its full survey of Shostakovich’s 15 works and the first release in a related CD series (for which it won international praise). All the while, Pacifica astonished with its total unity and control and completely fresh presentation of works burdened until now by history and external emotions. And the four remain among the nicest folks you’ll ever meet.

11. An explosion of youth: Chicago now has so many new music ensembles that no critic can follow all of them. ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) and eighth blackbirdtour nationally and internationally. Though most ICE members have migrated to Brooklyn, their presences here are significant and real. Chicago-centered dal niente, Access Contemporary Music, Fifth House, anaphora and Third Coast Percussion are just some of the now regularly presenting new music groups around town. Meanwhile, enterprising pianist-impresario George LePauw showed that similar work could be done with good ol’ Ludwig van when he staged a weeklong Beethoven festival in Pilsen with the participation and attendance of a multitude of his twentysomething peers.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM.

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