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A sound year for Chicago’s classical music scene

Riccardo Muti with CSO | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times Media

Riccardo Muti with the CSO | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 31, 2013 6:17AM

Despite the recession and worries about the state of classical music, 2012 found concert music and opera here in good to great condition — even with an unexpected 48-hour strike by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in September. Here are some highlights:

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: If the repeated observation sounds like a broken record, then let’s not fix that disc. The partnership of music director Riccardo Muti and the CSO finds both parties at the top of their respective decades-long professional games. In subscription performances at Symphony Center, a free concert in Millennium Park and tours of California, Russia, Muti’s native Italy and to New York’s Carnegie Hall, these artists have been winning over ticket buyers and critics alike. Muti’s ability to reanimate such popular works as Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and Orff’s “Carmina Burana” make the case for neglected works, including those of one of his heroes, Luigi Cherubini, and to sell contemporary work by Mead co-composer-in-residence Mason Bates demonstrates the maestro’s unique blend of technical devotion and lyrical passion. New hires continue to strengthen the orchestra, and three new years of labor peace could allow discussion of serious issues between players and management without the pressure of contract negotiations.

Lyric Opera of Chicago: Strong partnerships are the name of the game here as well. Although still working with seasons largely planned and cast by his predecessor William Mason, general director Anthony Freud has been putting his lively stamp on this grand opera company, tweaking productions, launching a successful family opera presentation and an already sold-out January collaboration with the Second City. Lyric’s announcement this year of a commissioned world premiere for 2015, “Bel Canto,” has been promising thus far, with its composer Jimmy Lopez and librettist Nilo Cruz making themselves available to the public in articulate discussions. Music director Andrew Davis has had his contract extended until well past the next two presidential elections and kicked off the fall with superb work in three consecutive offerings not only of his beloved Richard Strauss but French and Italian repertoire with which he is less identified. Lyric’s young Ryan Center singers have been everywhere, too, and took to the airwaves for the first time with a monthly radio series of song and lieder.

New generation of new music: It took an East Coast hurricane slamming Brooklyn to do it, but a national audience now knows that Chicago has an increasingly lively new music scene with a deep bench. Local violist Doyle Armbrust and composer-Columbia College faculty member Marcos Balter closed out the calendar year by organizing a packed benefit at the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village to help New York’s New Amsterdam music collective and record label after their Red Hook studios were severely damaged by the mammoth storm. Even with such nationally known groups as ICE, the full complement of eighth blackbird and Pacifica Quartet being on the road, musicians and composers from CUBE, Fulcrum Point, Fifth House Ensemble, Spektral Quartet, dal niente, Chicago Q Ensemble, Third Coast Percussion, Access Contemporary Music, two of the six blackbirds and other groups offered a tight, four-hour showcase of the variety and community of the current Chicago scene. Their efforts even netted a half-page writeup in the New York Times.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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