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2016 Spring Arts Preview — Classical Music

Susanna Malkki | PHOTO BY SIMON FOWLER

By Kyle MacMillan | For the Sun-Times

Among the apexes of Riccardo Muti’s tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have been his spellbinding full-length concert versions of operas, especially those of Giuseppe Verdi. The veteran Italian conductor has earned international kudos for his insightful, authoritative interpretations of the masterworks by his fellow countryman.

Riccardo Muti | Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images
Riccardo Muti | Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

In what is sure to be a high point of Chicago’s spring classical-music season, Muti will lead April 21, 23 and 26 performances of “Falstaff,” Verdi’s much-loved comic opera derived in large part from Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” The program will complete the conductor’s multi-season presentation of all three of the composer’s Shakespeare operas. Singing the title role will be baritone Ambrogio Maestri, whom the New York Times has called “one of the leading Falstaffs of the day.” ($36-$260; cso.org.)

Here is a look at 10 other potentially stand-out classical events during the spring season:

“Romeo and Juliet” – Because of an unusual confluence of scheduling, audiences will have the opportunity to experience two of the most famous musical adaptions of Shakespeare’s timeless romantic tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet,” within weeks of each other. In performances running through March 19, Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting the most popular of the more than dozen operatic versions of the play by Charles Gounod. It will feature three Lyric returnees in the title roles — tenors Joseph Calleja and Eric Cutler taking turns as Romeo and soprano Susanna Phillips as Juliet. ($39-$349; lyricopera.org). Although Hector Berlioz’s adaptation has quasi-theatrical elements, he wrote it for the concert stage and labeled it a “symphonie dramatique (dramatic symphony).” Riccardo Muti will lead the Chicago Symphony in April 7-9 performances of this 1839 work, which many experts consider to be the composer’s greatest creation. ($36-$260; cso.org.)

Violinist Joshua Bell. | Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Violinist Joshua Bell. | Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Joshua Bell – The London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is among the best-known and most recorded classical ensembles in the world. In 2011, it appointed famed violinist Bell to succeed founder Neville Marriner as music director, creating an instantly powerhouse match-up. Bell and the Academy will appear March 12 in the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, performing a program that includes Benjamin Britten’s lost arrangement of the second movement of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto. ($35-$125; harristheaterchicago.org.)

“Vespers” — Scores of famous and not-so-famous composers have written musical settings of Vespers, the centuries-old evening prayer service in several Christian denominations. Among the most famous is Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 masterpiece, “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin,” written at the dawn of the baroque era. Music director Jane Glover will lead the Music of the Baroque in its first performances in nearly two decades of this stunning work during performances April 1-3 at venues in Chicago and Northbrook. ($27-$75; baroque.org). The Newberry Consort, a Chicago-based early-music ensemble, will present a much less widely known example by Juan de Lienas, a Mexican baroque composer, during performances April 8-10 in three different settings. ($35-$45; newberryconsort.org.)

Eighth Blackbird, featuring Michael J. Maccaferri, Tim Munro, Yvonne Lam, Matthew Duvall, Lisa Kaplan, Nicholas Photinos. |Photo Credit: Luke Ratray
Eighth Blackbird, featuring Michael J. Maccaferri, Tim Munro, Yvonne Lam, Matthew Duvall, Lisa Kaplan, Nicholas Photinos. |Photo Credit: Luke Ratray

eighth blackbird — One of this country’s best-known new-music ensembles, eighth blackbird, is based in Chicago. This ready-for-anything sextet is in the midst of an innovative 10-month residency that continues through June at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and features open rehearsals in the galleries when it is in town. As part of its stay, it is presenting a pair of concerts on March 25-26 that will include “Murder Ballades,” a new work by Bryce Dessner. Although best known as the guitarist for the famed indie-rock band, The National, he is also making a major name for himself in the classical realm. ($30; mcachicago.org.)

String Quartets – Chicago audiences will have opportunities to experience an array of top string quartets this spring, including the chance to hear both compelling, avant-garde-tinged works written for this instrumental combination by famed 20th-century Czech composer Leoš Janáček. The Berlin-based Artemis Quartet will present the composer’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata” (1923), which was inspired Leo Tolstoy’s novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata.” That performance will take April 8 as part of the University of Chicago Presents series. ($35; chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.) On April 26, the Dover Quartet (8), which is in residence at Northwestern University, will perform the composer’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” in the school’s Galvin Recital Hall. ($30; events.music.northwestern.edu.)

Charles Ives — Charles Ives’ delightful art songs are too little known and little performed. These idiosyncratic musical snatches of life can be playful and witty or wistful and affecting, and many are tinged with elements of American folk and church music. As part of its annual series of concerts at the Harris Theater, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is offering an April 21 program titled “American Visions” that will include an assortment of Ives songs performed by baritone Randall Scarlata. ($25-$55; harristheaterchicago.org.)

Susanna Mälkki — Wondering who might be named to one of the next big international conducting posts? Don’t rule out fast-rising Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, who has made acclaimed debuts with several top-level orchestras in the last couple of years and was mentioned in conjunction with the New York Philharmonic’s just-filled music director opening. Mälkki gained praise for her previous appearances with the Chicago Symphony – subscription concerts in 2011 and 2013 in Orchestra Hall and a performance in 2014 at the Ravinia Festival. She returns March 30-April 2 (10) to lead a program that includes Gil Shaham as soloist in Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sheherazade.” ($34-$221; cso.org.)

Other spring offerings worth noting include: Spanish early-music master Jordi Savall and Frank McGuire, “Man & Nature: The Celtic Viol in the English, Irish, Scottish and American Traditions” (University of Chicago Presents, March 4, $35, chicagopresents.uchicago.edu); “The Three Sch’s: Music by Schütz, Scheidt & Schein,” Bella Voce Camerata and Rook, (March 5 and 6, Chicago and Evanston, $35-40, bellavoce.org); Tallis Scholars, a celebrated London-based a cappella ensemble (April 5, Fourth Presbyterian Church, $35-$55, cso.org); famed classical guitarists Sérgio and Odair Assad and Sérgio’s daughter, Clarice, a pianist and vocalist (University of Chicago Presents, April 17, $35, chicagopresents.uchicago.edu), and superstar pianist Lang Lang and the Chicago Symphony (May 21, Orchestra Hall, $39-$295, cso.org).

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.