Recap: January 2016

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Jaap van Zweden will succeed Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic in 2018.

A big month in classical music news. In Chicago:

  • Lyric Opera has announced its 2016/17 season, with its usual emphasis on meaty 19th-century repertoire. Highlights include the beginning of Lyric’s new Ring cycle with October’s Das Rheingold, the Lyric premiere (!) of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in November, a new production of The Magic Flute, and the Chicago premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird in March, coproduced with Harris Theater. Subscriptions go on sale tomorrow, February 1.
  • The CSO also announced its 2016/17 season this month. Like previous seasons, most of the offbeat programming comes not from commissions and new works, but explorations of lesser-known (and usually Italian) composers. That’s not to say, however, that the new season offers nothing by way of new music: Four new pieces are scheduled to be premiered by the CSO, including a cello concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen that was co-commissioned by the CSO, the New York Philharmonic, the Barbican Centre, and the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. (Yo-Yo Ma will premiere the work at Symphony Center in March 2017.) Other highlights include an ongoing celebration of Prokofiev’s 125th birthday year, a visit by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and music director Iván Fischer, a two-piano Chamber Series recital with Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes, and a complete Beethoven piano concerto cycle. In and outside of Chicago, the CSO will also continue its community outreach concerts, including a new series at Wheaton College.

Both entities, on the whole, seem to be plugging in much the same creative direction as last season—which is to be expected—but their programming already seems more promising than 15/16 did this time last year. Autumn couldn’t come sooner, but first…

  • …a promising summer line-up is slated for the Grant Park Music Festival’s 2016 season. A bouquet of artists and pieces both familiar and new enliven the season, including a weeklong Marin Alsop residency, an appearance by the Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine, a world premiere by Michael Gandolfi and regional premiere by Aaron Jay Kernis, and finally, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust as a riotous season closer.
  • Ravinia—or, as I call it, Chicago Pops—has also announced its CSO residency season. Its opener includes the American premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto, as performed by Nicola Benedetti. (The rest of that concert has yet to be programmed.) Also appearing are Alisa Weilerstein, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Daniil Trifonov, Jeffrey Kahane, Paul Lewis, Gil Shaham, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, and Lynn Harrell.

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Pierre Boulez, 1925-2016

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Pierre Boulez—whom I wrote about on this blog just a few short weeks ago— died Tuesday at the age of 90. I never met Maestro Boulez, but today, listening to his music and his Bruckner 8 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (a favorite), I was reminded of two stories I thought I’d share here.

One is an anecdote my teacher told me. She’s a violinist in the CSO, meaning she’s worked closely with Pierre Boulez over the years. (Boulez was named principal guest conductor of the orchestra in 1995 and held the title of conductor emeritus upon his death.)

Her most vivid memory of the maestro is rather at odds with Boulez’s granitic public persona. Roughly paraphrased, she told me the following:

“Have you noticed that music, more than anything else, has a way of ‘getting’ you when you least expect it? Once, Pierre Boulez was conducting us [the CSO] in a performance of Mahler 2. And wouldn’t you believe it—I looked up during the performance and noticed that tears were running down his cheeks. To this day, I don’t know what it was that made him cry, but something about it must’ve caught him off-guard.”

Then, a miraculous dream I had in November: I was embedded in the ranks of an orchestra, standing and facing the conductor. None other than Boulez was on the podium. Whatever he was conducting evoked the orchestral version of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean, but was more immersive, more organic. Whatever it was, I felt utterly engulfed by the music; in that moment, nothing else mattered but the sounds of the orchestra. I woke up unable to remember what the piece sounded like, but Boulez’s image—stoically set jaw, minimalistic gestures and all—was embedded in my mind.

That morning, I listened to John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean for the first time. My dream had been a near-premonition: in the piece, I heard everything I’d felt the night before and more. Later that month, when I got the opportunity to speak to Adams for the Miami Herald, I impulsively told him about my dream.

“Oh, Hannah, that’s wonderful; I love that,” he cried. “And Boulez would be a great interpreter of Ocean, too.”

Unfortunately, that hypothesis remained untested, as did the Waiting for Godot hypothesis, and the countless unfulfilled revisions of Boulez’s own pieces that were surely in the works.

What a shame that is. But—what a life.

Taut, timely Bel Canto receives long-awaited Lyric premiere

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Unlikely friends Gen (Andrew Stenson) and Roxana (Danielle de Niese) are brought together by a hair-raising hostage situation.  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

*WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Read at your own discretion.*

Before the premiere performance of Bel Canto, I was wandering around the grand lobby of the Civic Opera House when I ran into some friends from WFMT. They were asking patrons why they were attending the performance, then collecting soundbites from their responses for a segment.

My answer was easy: When you have the opportunity to attend the world premiere of an opera, you go—especially a show as anticipated as Bel Canto. Billed as a dream collaboration between Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis, creative consultant Renée Fleming, director Kevin Newbury, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, and upstart composer Jimmy López, Bel Canto would also be the notoriously conservative Lyric’s first commission in more than a decade.

In the end, Bel Canto didn’t quite meet its hype—how could it’ve? But it was certainly memorable, not to mention a laudable showing for López and Cruz, who made their first foray into opera with the commission.

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