Take the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s historic Civic Orchestra professional training ensemble, add Lyric Opera of Chicago’s enviable Ryan Center program, blend with challenging vocal and instrumental works by Richard Strauss and a rarely presented romp by Francis Poulenc, and bring in a debuting young American conductor to stir, and what do you get?
One of the most exciting and satisfying concerts by any set of players at Orchestra Hall this season.
Monday night was the third of what is now an annual pairing of the Civic and Ryan artists. With Strauss songs — the suite from his opera “Der Rosenkavalier” and Poulenc’s 1947 feminist-comic romp, “The Breasts of Tiresias” selected and prepared by Civic and Ryan artistic and musical staff and Michael Christie on the podium — the combination had another winner.
Of course these free concerts matter as much for the performers as for the enthusiastic audiences. For youthful orchestra musicians to play with both solo singers and opera ensembles, and to stretch their repertoire experience in doing so, is a rare additional benefit. And for the Ryan singers to have their own night with an orchestra of their slightly younger peers ony adds to this excellent institute’s attraction for the best preparatory vocalists.
Whether it was a matter of time, of having an orchestra onstage rather than being an isolated soloist on stage with the players in the pit, tenor John Irvin had a much better outing with Strauss here than at the Rising Stars Ryan concert earlier this year. In both the daunting “Zueignung” (Dedication) and the more love-tossed “Caecilie” he balanced well with the orchestra and was both technically and emotionally effective. Soprano Tracy Cantin is a veteran of power and artistry in the Ryan program, and her “Allerseelen” (All Soul’s Day) and “Fruhlingsfeier” (Spring Festival) brought down the house barely a quartet of the way into the evening.
Christie followed this with a performance of the “Rosenkavalier” Suite more idiomatic than many heard here in a number of years. You could see the orchestral musicians diving in to the Viennese way of “breathing” and creating atmosphere through stretching and pulling in the rhythms not only of the waltz portions. And what a horn section and what fine wind and trumpet soloists! The concert-opening Overture to Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” had already shown that this would not be one-size-fits-all conducting.
The second half brought the mad but very musically appealing Poulenc, created in 1947 by the popular Parisian jokester after an earlier surrealist playlet by his poet friend Guillaume Apollinaire. The story: Therese, a woman of Zanzibar, relocated to just off of the French Riviera, tires of the societal restrictions on women, demands for childbearing and even her breasts, which she releases into the air. As Tiresias she grows, and then trims, a beard and moustache and even prompts her once-straightlaced husband to become something of a woman and delivers 40,049 children in a single day, one of whom quickly becomes an 18-year-old blackmailing tabloid journalist.
Despite the lack of props and costumes, both third-year can-take-on-any-part Ryan baritone Will Livermore as the husband and brand-new soprano member Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Therese/Tiresias (and a card reader) were wholly convincing and entertaining. The audience followed along with the wordy but hilarious libretto in printed booklets. Seven Ryan colleagues old and new pitched in through the zany “plot” and Christie and the orchestra and section leaders had you thinking you were at the Opera-Comique in Paris. A real accomplishment.