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THE BEST OF 2014: Classical music and opera


2014 was a year of much news in the local classical and opera worlds — the naming of a new president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, the announced departures of three of the CSO’s principal wind players and the return of the fourth, a new young program director at classical mainstay WFMT-FM (98.7), the collapse of the International Beethoven Festival after younger musicians revealed that they had not been paid, and the high level of music-making by names great and less known. Here are but 10 of the many events that stood out this year.

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Concerts in February, June and September underscored both the consistency and richness of works under the CSO’s popular Italian music director. In the winter Muti revealed an almost unknown mass by Franz Schubert showing him to also have been a serious choral composer and showcasing the excellent CSO Chorus. In June, Muti paired Schubert’s Fifth Symphony with a CSO staple, Mahler’s First, making magic in both. And the season-opening Beethoven Ninth with orchestra, chorus, and major soloists was much more than gala fare.

Lighter works at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric showed again that when the company takes lighter or more popular works seriously, no one can do them better. From a “Fledermaus” that spilled over merrily into January — done in German and performed as real music — to 2014’s post-season Rodgers & Hammerstein offering “The Sound of Music” (April-May) demonstrating the power of the original Broadway show and stripping off the sugary goo of the Hollywood movie, both with great casts, Lyric audiences were reminded that light music can be spellbinding.

Heavier works at Lyric.

Lyric’s new production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” with Ana Maria Martinez and Eric Owens (February-March) made clear that this opera is much more than just the source of “The Song of the Moon.” With music director Andrew Davis, a brilliant devotee of Czech music, in the pit, we had two hours-plus of rare heartbreak. Joyce DiDonato and Amanda Majeski shook the rafters and our psyches in Mozart’s “La clemenza di Tito” in March, and Sondra Radvanovsky and colleagues are doing the same right now in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.” Not to mention the powerful stagings and young casts of “Don Giovanni,” “Il Trovatore” and “Porgy and Bess.”

The other “Macbeth.”

While he launched his 2014 season with a questionable reconstruction of Duke Ellington’s “jazz opera” “Queenie Pie,” Chicago Opera Theater general director Andreas Mitisek made up for that misstep with the century-plus-delayed Chicago premiere of Swiss and American composer Ernest Bloch’s “Macbeth” in September. The eclectic Bloch was not Verdi but Mitisek’s intense production at the Harris Theater and Francesco Milioto’s matching conducting made this much more than a curiosity.

Pacifica Quartet and Anthony McGill

No bells, no whistles, “just” perfect chamber music making by a constellation of Chicago connected artists. Locally born and trained McGill, who recently left a first chair at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the principal’s seat at the New York Philharmonic, came home April 13 to join Pacifica, a University of Chicago pillar, at the U. of C.’s perfect small hall at its Logan Center for the Arts. A pair of quintet supernovas by Mozart and Brahms was also captured by the city’s Cedille Records so that you can cry tears of both joy and sadness listening to these masterworks.

Professional training programs

Calendar 2014 saw not one but two of the best pairings in town — and free ones as well — as the professional training programs of the CSO and Lyric Opera gave joint concerts at Orchestra Hall of unusual and wonderful repertoire. In the spring the fine young conductor Michael Christie led music of Richard Strauss and a semi-staged production of Francis Poulenc’s comic one-act opera “The Breasts of Tiresias.” Last month Music of the Baroque principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer brought Mozart’s C minor Mass. Both organizations excelled with Ryan soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi stealing both performances as she comes close to doing, too, with Clara’s “Summertime” in Lyric’s “Porgy and Bess.”

Inside and out with Grant Park

The Grant Park Music Festival had at least two historic evenings in an early week of its 80th season: the Blues Festival driving a mammoth “Romeo and Juliet” by Berlioz — orchestra, chorus, and soloists — inside and into the wholly appropriate Auditorium Theatre (in its own 125th year) and on-again off-again storms sending audiences under and out of cover as an outdoor program a few nights later started and stopped and started and stopped again. Young violinist Stefan Jackiw, whose opening-night concert last season was canceled altogether by the mayor due to a storm threat that never brought a storm, was able to squeeze in a spirited performance of Mozart’s “Turkish” Concerto before the last lightning bolts, but that was about it.

Bennett Gordon Hall at Ravinia

Ravinia Festival’s Pavilion schedule continued its identity transformation from classical mecca to boomer pop and rock showcase and the landmark Martin Theatre was less used over all. But indoor and air-conditioned Bennett Gordon was the place to be late in the season for exciting and innovative chamber programs — and at just $10 each! One highlight came from Anthony de Mare on Aug. 27, playing new pieces he commissioned from a varied pack of composers based on Sondheim songs. And two came Aug. 30 from polymath Dan Tepfer with his own reworking/expansion of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, followed two hours later by a super solid straight-ahead jazz improvisation set.

Guests in the house

The policy on CSO guest artists is in transition as music director Riccardo Muti lets his preferences be known and the orchestra’s parent awaits new administrative leadership. Three standouts included in February the continuing role of young Romanian and American conductor Cristian Macelaru, originally heard here a couple seasons back as a substitute for Pierre Boulez and, in May, British piano marvel Paul Lewis as May soloist in Beethoven’s Third Concerto (he’ll play the “Emperor” here next month) with venerable guest conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi. And last-minute sub (for an ailing Jaap van Zweden) Donald Runnicles led an astonishing Mahler Fifth — a piece one does not always expect anymore to be astonished by — in October.

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the L’Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Torino | COPYRIGHT FONAZIONE TEATRO REGIO DI TORINO
Gianandrea Noseda conducts the L’Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Torino | COPYRIGHT FONAZIONE TEATRO REGIO DI TORINO

Three nights of intensity

Three one-offs — OK, one was a two-off — stick in the minds of all who attended. Gerard McBurney and architect Frank Gehry’s November CSO “Beyond the Score” multimedia composer tribute to the upcoming 90th birthday of the legendary Pierre Boulez was given twice. Gianandrea Noseda brought his Teatro Regio opera company to the Harris Theater this month all the way from Turin, Italy, to thrill the crowd with three hours of the nearly never played Rossini’s “William Tell” in concert. And the next night young folks of the New Millennium Orchestra packed 500 hipsters into Pilsen’s newly restored, re-created Thalia Hall for a spellbinding presentation of Bartok’s one-hour opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” with Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli and American soprano Kara Shay Thomson.

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