A decade of classical music: Looking back on the 2010s
Much has happened during this transformative decade in the classical scene from the establishment of a feisty baroque opera company and contemporary music festival to the opening of three major academic facilities.
Towering over all else in Chicago’s classical-music scene during the past decade was Riccardo Muti’s tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which began Sept. 19, 2010, with a bang — an introductory concert in the Pritzker Pavilion that drew more than 26,000 listeners.
Following in the footsteps of such recent podium giants as Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim, the revered Italian conductor has reinforced the orchestra’s vaunted international stature with stand-out concerts in Orchestra Hall and tours across Asia, Europe and North America.
The CSO managed to recruit Muti as its new artistic leader to the dismay of the New York Philharmonic, which had been courting him for its open music directorship. The maestro has brought a refined sensibility to the CSO’s famous sound and a probing depth to its interpretations.
Although the conductor has taken a few knocks for what some perceive as less-than-adventurous programming, he has overseen a steady stream of world premieres and highlighted little-known works by such composers as Giuseppe Martucci and Alexander Scriabin.
Muti is especially revered for his musical insights into Giuseppe Verdi, and among the most anticipated events during his tenure have been his full-length concert presentations of operas by the celebrated Italian composer, including “Macbeth” (2013) and “Falstaff” (2016) and “Aida” (2019).
Also notable was the orchestra’s October 2013 performance of Verdi’s Requiem Mass, which featured the orchestra’s first live transmission to a massive screen in the Pritzker Pavilion and worldwide via more than 40 classical websites. He and the orchestra won two Grammy Awards for a live recording of the Requiem made during concerts in January 2009 when the conductor was music director designate.
In a 2015 interview with the Sun-Times, Muti reflected: “The new language of music also will come from modern interpretations of the masters. The CSO is a master of the great classical, Romantic and early 20th century repertoire, and to keep that work alive is a big responsibility. What we think we know well should not become easily routine.”
Along with Muti’s accomplishments, much else has happened during this transformative decade in the classical scene from the establishment of a feisty baroque opera company and contemporary music festival to the opening of three major academic facilities.
Here’s a look at nine other classical highlights of the decade:
2011: Already boasting two well-established opera companies, it might have seemed like Chicago hardly had room for another. But the Haymarket Opera Company has carved out a niche for itself as one of three organizations in North America that present 17th- and 18th-century operas with period music and staging. It began with Handel’s “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo” and the highlights have kept coming since, including one of its biggest offerings in the fall of 2017, a full-scale production ofMarin Marais’ “Ariane et Bachus” complete with dancers.
2012: Major classical-music buildings have opened on three area university campuses in the past decade, significantly upgrading the educational environment and giving the city some welcome new concert facilities. In October 2012, the University of Chicago unveiled the $114 million Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, which includes a sleek 474-seat concert hall. Northwestern University added in 2015 the $117 million Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, which incorporates the 400-seat Galvin Recital Hall, with sound overseen by the famed acoustical consultants, Kirkegaard Associates. DePaul University opened its Holtschneider Performance Center with a series of high-profile concerts in November 2018. The $98 million performance center includes the 505-seat Mary Patricia Gannon Concert Hall.
2015-2016: Lyric Opera of Chicago presented the world-premiere production of Jimmy López’s “Bel Canto,” one of three company offerings in the decade to be featured on PBS’ Great Performances. The multi-language adaptation of Ann Patchett’s 2001 best-selling novel was inspired by a 1996-97 Peruvian hostage crisis. The opera drew favorable local and national reviews, with Wall Street Journal critic Heidi Waleson calling it an “impressively solid first opera” by the composer.
2016: Just in time for the holiday season, Joffrey Ballet unveiled its inventive, Chicago-centric take on “The Nutcracker,” moving the action to five months before the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. While this now-annual production does not have a few of the staples typically associated with this beloved classic, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon makes up for them with a host of witty, imaginative new touches. And, of course, Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score remains the anchor of it all.
2016: For six days in October, Chicago was hands down the best place on the planet to experience new music. Conceived by noted composer Augusta Read Thomas, Ear Taxi: Chicago Festival of New Music put the spotlight like never before on the Windy City as an under-appreciated incubator of contemporary classical music. In all, it brought together 88 composers and more than 300 musicians and featured a mind-blowing 54 world premieres.
2017: Lots of events are marketed as “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” but this one arguably was. “Monteverdi 450,” which ran Oct. 12, 13 and 15 in the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, marked the 450th anniversary of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), a musical genius who helped define opera as we know it. Famed English conductor John Eliot Gardiner led his top-flight period ensembles – the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists – in performances of the composer’s three extant operatic masterworks as part of a seven-month tour across Europe and the United States. The experience was extraordinary in every way.
2018: Hundreds of musical organizations worldwide marked 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, but few did it on a more ambitious scale than the Ravinia Festival. It hired conductor Marin Alsop, one of Bernstein’s last protégés and his only female one, to serve as the festival’s first-ever artistic curator. She and Welz Kauffman, the festival’s president and chief executive officer, put together a 14-concert tribute to Bernstein that ran July 12 through Sept. 12 and included a July 28 performance of the composer’s rarely heard Mass. Alsop returned in 2019 to extend the tributes to Bernstein.
2019: Chicago Opera Theater has made its mark by performing an array of new or under-the-radar works but few if any of its offerings have topped this superb April production of Jake Heggie’s adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” The 2010 opera is a worthy successor to Benjamin Britten’s 1951 adaptation of another of Melville’s sea-faring novels, “Billy Budd,” and director Kristine McIntyre’s staging invested the characters with depth and poignancy and infused the ensemble scenes with rollicking movement and energy.
2019: Johann Sebastian Bach’s six solo suites for cello might seem like rarefied fare, but famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma has managed to turn them into anthems for shared fellowship and understanding. He performed the introspective works on June 20 in Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion as part of his Bach Project, a continuing series of 36 concerts worldwide. The Chicago presentation was co-presented by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association and the Department of Cultural Events and Special Events and attracted an audience of about 20,000.