This year marks the 98th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, the composer, conductor and master teacher whose fabled Young People’s Concerts (53 performances telecast on CBS-TV between 1958 and 1972) spread the gospel of the joys of classical music to young and old alike.
Nothing like those concerts exists today. And anyone familiar with the overwhelmingly gray-haired demographic for many classical music events (with the free summertime offerings of the Grant Park Music Festival a notable exception), will attest to the fact that greater education and exposure to this remarkable art form is crucial. That said, Chicago’s classical music scene continues to try to shake things up, with world-class musicians at work on the city’s many stages. Here, with just some of the highlights of the Fall 2016 season, is the proof:
Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center: Maestro Riccardo Muti will conduct “A Night on Bald Mountain,” Mussorgsky’s tone poem on the theme of a witch’s sabbath; Richard Strauss’ early modernist tone poem, “Don Juan,” and Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 7” on Sept. 22-27. He also will lead a program featuring Martucci’s rarely heard orchestral song cycle, “La canzione dei ricordi” (“The Song of Memories”), featuring the CSO debut of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, Catalani’s “Contemplazione,” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7” on Sept. 29-Oct. 1. And, for the Symphony Ball on Oct. 15, Muti will complete the 125th anniversary season with Wagner’s “Faust Overture,” Dvorak’s “Husitska Overture,” Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” and Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” with soloist Daniil Trifonov, the much-acclaimed young Russian pianist. In addition, conductor David Afkham will lead the CSO (Oct. 22) in Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10,” and Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” with the great Emanuel Ax as soloist. And James Levine will return to lead the CSO (Nov. 8), for a program featuring Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” Schoenberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra,” and Stravinsky’s “The Song of the Nightingale.” Visit www.cso.org.
Lyric Opera of Chicago: First on the Fall roster will be a new production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold” (Oct. 1 – 22), initiating the company’s four-part Ring Cycle, a tale of the quest for world power through possession of a golden ring. Sir Andrew Davis conducts, and David Pountney directs. Next comes Donizetti’s tragic “Lucia Di Lammermoor” (Oct. 15 – Nov. 6), the Italian bel canto classic with a Scottish setting, based on Sir Walter Scott’s’ historical romance about warring families, a false charge of infidelity and a bride-to-be who goes mad. Enrique Mazzola conducts this “new-to-Chicago” production that will be directed by Graham Vick. Finally, there will be the Lyric premiere of the French grand opera, “Les Troyens” (“The Trojans”), (Nov. 13 – Dec. 3), the monumental, 5-hour work by Hector Berlioz based on Virgil’s “Aeneid,” which chronicles the fall of Troy at the hands of the Greeks, the founding of a new Troy by Aeneas, and his calamitous love affair with Queen Dido. Sir Andrew Davis conducts and Tim Albery directs. Visit www.lyricopera.org.
Chicago Opera Theater: The company’s season (to be performed in several different venues), will begin with “The Love Potion” (“Le Vin Herbe”), (Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 and 9 at the Music Box Theatre), Frank Martin’s mystical 1942 work based on a retelling of the Tristan and Iseult legend by medievalist Joseph Bedier. The work, “a tale of fateful lovers who meet by deception, fall in love by magic, and pursue their love in defiance of heavenly and earthly powers,” features 12 singers serving as both the soloists and chorus, with a small ensemble of seven strings and a piano. Emanuele Andrizzi conducts, with Andreas Mitisek as director/designer. Next up will be “The Fairy Queen” (Nov. 5, 11 and 13 at the historic, newly renovated Studebaker Theater), Henry Purcell’s masque-like take on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” seen as a “gender-bending culture clash of social satire,” and a send-up of love’s insanities. Visit www.chicagooperatheater.org.
The Emerson String Quartet at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (Oct. 19): On the occasion of the ensemble’s 40th anniversary season, the Emerson (and guests) will play a selection of repertoire that has earned it nine Grammy Awards and cemented its reputation as one of the greatest chamber ensembles of all time. On the program will be Beethoven’s “Quartet in F minor for Strings”; Bartók’s “Quartet No. 4 for Strings” and Mendelssohn’s “Octet in E-flat major for Strings.” Visit www.harristheaterchicago.org.
MusicNOW at the Harris Theater (Oct. 10): Lovers of new music will not want to miss this program, featuring musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with conductor Cliff Colnot. It will feature Marc Mellits’ “Splinter”; Katherine Young’s “the moss glows and the water is black” (a world premiere commission); the Chicago premiere of Sam Pluta’s “Tile Mosaic (After Chagall),” and another world premiere MusicNOW commission — Kyle Vegter’s “Monday or Tuesday” — featuring the work of Manuel Cinema, the internationally acclaimed Chicago-based masters of shadow puppetry and cinematic theater. Visit www.harristheaterchicago.org.
eighth blackbird (Oct 22 at Arts Club of Chicago): As part of the Arts Club of Chicago’s 100th anniversary celebration, Chicago’s ever-adventurous eighth blackbird ensemble will premiere David Lang’s “Composition as Explanation,” a musicalization of Gertrude Stein’s 1926 lecture of the same name. A love letter both in repetition and plain language, the work is part concert, part installation and part performance art, using music, speech, singing, movement and lighting “to transform the text into a carnival of language.” The piece will be performed continuously throughout the building from noon until 5 p.m, and will be complemented by other live presentations. Visit www.artsclubchicago.org.
Chicago Latino Music Festival: Now in its 11th season, this is Chicago’s only Latino-focused classical music festival, with performances running Sept. 8 – Dec. 1 at multiple venues throughout the city. Led by artistic directors and composers Gustavo Leone (Argentinian-born) and Elbio Barilari (Uruguay-born), it will showcase music from the Baroque period to the 21st Century, and will feature international artists such as Spanish classical guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas, Dúo Belcorde (Manuel Briega, violin, and Adrián Fernández, Spanish guitar), internationally renowned Mexican pianist Mauricio Náder, Colombia’s Cuarteto Q-Arte, as well as Chicago’s Avalon String Quartet, Baroque Ensemble, Chicago Arts Orchestra and the University of Illinois Orchestra. Visit www.latinomusicfest.org.
Civitas Ensemble (Oct. 16 at Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University): The season will be devoted to a Czech theme, including a collaboration with Pavel Šporcl and the Gipsy Way Ensemble, a group from the Czech Republic that specializes in performing music from the Romani tradition. To support that project, the season opener will feature works of Czech composers including Bohuslav Martinu’s “Quartet for oboe, violin, violoncello and piano“; Zdenek Fibich’s “Quintet Op. 42 for violin, cello, clarinet, French horn and piano,” and Leos Janacek’s “String Quartet #2.” Visit www.civitasensemble.org.
Chicago Fringe Opera (Oct. 28 and 30 and Nov. 1 and 3 at Preston Bradley Center in Mason Hall): For its third season, the company will present the Chicago premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s 2012 chamber opera, “Songs from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt.” With a libretto by Royce Vavrek inspired by the writings of Eberhardt, the intriguing late 19th century author and explorer, this 80-minute work moves from Isabelle’s childhood home in Switzerland to the deserts of North Africa. Visit www.chicagofringeopera.com.
Chicago Sinfonietta (at Wentz Concert Hall, Naperville on Sept. 17 and at Symphony Center, Chicago on Sept. 19): Featured on an eclectic program titled “Unhinged,” led by director Mei-Ann Chen, will be music from Glinka’s fairy-tale opera, “Russlan and Ludmilla,” Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” and Poulenc’s “Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor,” as well as Anderson & Roe performing their own piano-centric take on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the Gershwin standard “I Got Rhythm” featuring Clayton Stephenson, and Coldplay’s popular “Viva La Vida.” Visit www.chicagosinfonietta.org.