November 24, 2014
Like the academic calendar, the classical music and opera seasons start in the fall and wind through winter and spring with an end, or at least a shift of locale, in summer. Still, the calendar year gives a frame for comparisons and evaluation even in a healthy scene, such as Chicago has now, where narrowing great performances and presentations to 10 is not easy. Here is a set, though there could certainly be more.
1. “Troubled Island,”
South Shore Opera
Company (Oct. 19)
The most history-making event of the year was also one of the least noticed (outside of these pages): the first presentation in 60 years of the first African-American grand opera, “Troubled Island,” the tragic story of a founding father of independent Haiti by William Grant Still and poet Langston Hughes. Offered one night only before a packed South Shore Cultural Center audience, this powerful work deserves to be mounted by a major opera house.
2. Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Orchestra Hall, June, September, October)
Under a different counting system, Il Maestro could be awarded four of the top 10 slots for his Verdi 200 programs: June’s “Four Sacred Pieces” and in the fall his revelatory “Macbeth,” a Requiem on Verdi’s actual birthday anniversary that was a summary of a lifetime of conducting, and a visit with the full CSO, Chorus, and vocal soloists to Cicero, where a full house and performers achieved a rare communion.
3. Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” Grant Park Music Festival, Carlos Kalmar
conducting (June 28)
Chicago’s opera companies oddly skipped the Britten centenary, and the CSO’s programming is concentrated in early 2014. But Kalmar and colleagues gave a gripping and touching performance of this grand but intimate memorial work outdoors in June that surpassed the more recent CSO dates in focus and insight.
4. Maxim Vengerov in recital and in concert, Ravinia Festival (July 17)
Ravinia had a triple coup with the only U.S. bookings this year of the young Russian violin virtuoso after a long injury-related absence; Vengerov gave a concert performance with the CSO and a solo recital and a first Park performance of the Britten violin concerto. Vengerov is at the top of his game technically and interpretively.
5. Wagner’s “Parsifal” and “Meistersinger,” Lyric Opera
of Chicago, Andrew Davis
conducting (November and February)
Two major Wagner bookends for the Master’s bicentennial at the Civic Opera House, each conducted majestically and heartbreakingly by the music director. The seriousness, shape and control Davis brought to these scores far surpassed the company’s Verdi entries.
6. Verdi’s “Joan of Arc,” Chicago Opera Theater at the Harris Theater, Francesco Milioto conducting (Sept. 21)
The feisty company showed that it’s for real under its new general director Andreas Mitisek with a new and astonishingly alive staging of this early, too often inert, almost concert-form Verdi work. Disturbing yet exciting on both stage and in the pit, this was the sleeper hit of the year.
7. Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Oct. 31)
About to mark his 60th anniversary as a professional conductor of leading orchestras, the beloved Dutch former CSO leader returned with a Bruckner Four that again validated his belief that the hands and eyes can tell much more than speech in preparing a score.
8. International Beethoven Festival, directed by George LePauw, Merit School of Music, Chicago Temple (September)
The young Chicago pianist and impresario hit his stride with the third edition of his massive chamber and orchestral jamboree, geographically (in the West Loop and downtown) and thematically more focused and with a great mix of “names” and up-and-coming talent. The enterprise still has a ways to go, but musical results and variety were bountiful.
9. “The Second City Guide to the Opera” and other special productions, Lyric Opera
Diva and creative consultant Renee Fleming’s hand was everywhere this year in Lyric and, happy to say, all in good ways. A first-time collaboration with the improv comedy legends produced a brilliant sold-out show, a great cabaret series follow-up and workshops for members of the opera’s Ryan training center for young singers. Extra-season performances of a recital with Susan Graham, “A Streetcar Named Desire” (written for her); a mariachi opera commissioned in Houston by Lyric general director Anthony Freud, and “Oklahoma!” were all huge audience hits and brought thousands of people to the Opera House for the first time.
10. Michael Barenboim in Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto with the CSO (March 14)
The solo breakthrough of the year. Whether his father, former CSO music director and lifelong piano virtuoso Daniel, will ever return to Chicago, the 27-year-old violinist showed levels of maturity, intelligence and sheer beauty in playing this thorny but hypnotic rare 1936 Modernist masterwork that make him the bearer of the family name to book for as many future seasons as possible.