Adventurous times for classical music lovers
What sort of year was it for classical music in Chicago?
For starters, you had an increased number of groups - and not just the famous ones - putting on performances worthy of a world-class cultural center. You had loyal contributors and audience members maintaining their support of these groups despite the ailing economy. You had an expansion of local activity in early music, along with a steady stream of performances of new music by area composers.
Take a bow, classical music makers and consumers.
For Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the year began with misfortune but ended in triumph. The music director's shocking tumble from the podium during a February rehearsal resulted in injuries that benched him for several months. When he returned in May, it was with vitality undimmed. Muti presided over a string of successes, including a concert version of Verdi's "Otello" that took both Orchestra Hall and Carnegie Hall by storm; a late-summer European tour; and subscription programs honoring the Liszt and Mahler anniversaries.
Muti made his presence felt in other ways, bringing music and a message of hope to juvenile offenders incarcerated at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville. Cellist and CSO creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma, Muti's fellow foot soldier in the orchestra's movement to engage with the larger community, introduced Citizen Musician, an ambitious plan to encourage more Chicagoans to share in the musical experience.
Soprano Renee Fleming, Ma's creative counterpart at Lyric Opera, did her bit to help establish partnerships between the company and other Chicago institutions, as part of Lyric's far-flung Renee Fleming Initiative. In November the diva began a series of Web-based master classes with selected high school-aged voice students from the Merit School of Music. The initial "Skype session" suffered from technical glitches but pointed up the enormous potential of such cooperative educational ventures.
The arrival of the British-born Anthony Freud as Lyric's new general director in October found him administering a season planned by the previous administration. Lyric's offerings for 2011 included more hits than misses, with "Lohengrin," "Hercules," "The Tales of Hoffmann," "Boris Godunov" and "Ariadne auf Naxos" among the former. No Lyric-bred star of tomorrow emerged with greater brilliance than soprano Amber Wagner, whose Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss singing here was the real deal.
Several other developments brightened the local operatic horizon.
Chicago Opera Theater named the Vienna-born Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera's artistic and general director, to succeed Brian Dickie as COT general director. Many are counting on Mitisek's similarly progressive spirit to build on and extend Dickie's creative reach. Meanwhile, the latter's penultimate season boasted winning productions of Todd Machover's "Death and the Powers" and Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "Medea."
Also, the Haymarket Opera Company, the first Chicago ensemble dedicated to authentic stagings of early operas, made its debut with a stylish production of Handel's rarely produced "Aci, Galatea e Polifemo."
Other auspicious debuts included those of Mei-Ann Chen as the vigorously engaged new music director of Chicago Sinfonietta; and Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki and French conductor Stephane Deneve on the guest roster of the CSO. Stephen Williamson and Stephanie Jeong took their places as the CSO's principal clarinet and associate concertmaster, respectively.
My candidate for the year's best new undertaking in classical music was the International Beethoven Project's Beethoven Festival 2011, an ambitious, eclectic, barrier-blasting, uneven, ultimately wonderful celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven and composers who fell under his towering influence. For five days and nights, the Chicago Urban Art Society rocked to concerts, master classes and discussions that grappled with the idea of what Beethoven's music means, and can mean, to today's listeners. More, please.
The Beethoven bash wasn't the only attempt to shake up the staid concert format with unusual programming and/or novel presentation.
Violinist Hilary Hahn devoted the bulk of her recital program at Orchestra Hall to roughly a dozen new encores she had commissioned from composers around the world as part of a two-year project. The quality level was as high as the level of her performance. It's good to know she will unveil a second set of encores next season.
The self-styled "avant-chamber group," Fifth House Ensemble, launched a new concert series, "In Transit," featuring original, multimedia playlets loosely based on the theme of how the interactive digital age is changing the ways in which we communicate. You have to admire the sheer chutzpah and creative whimsy these young musicians bring to their enterprise, which they are presenting, free of charge, at the Chicago Cultural Center and other community venues around the city.
It was a year of podium transition at suburban orchestras, with Carmon DeLeone stepping down as music director of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra after 25 years, and Robert Hanson resigning the same position with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra after 37. Hanson, who has made the ESO one of the most widely respected of Midwest regional orchestras, left following disagreements with the board majority and administration, who proposed renting out the orchestra to private groups for Christmas parties and other functions.
Meanwhile, music directors such as Lawrence Rapchak at the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra and Alan Heatherington at the Ars Viva Symphony, Lake Forest Symphony and Chicago Master Singers continued to pursue artistic excellence with the full support of their boards.
An unusual number of Chicago musical organizations celebrated signal milestones in 2011. The year marked the 75th anniversary of the Chicago Chamber Music Society; the 60th of fine arts radio station WFMT-FM 98.7; the 40th of the William Ferris Chorale; the 35th of the People's Music School; the 25th of the Chicago Chamber Musicians and the Newberry Consort; and the 20th of the Music in the Loft concert series.
In 2011 the musical community lost Music in the Loft founder-director Fredda Hyman; former CSO musicians Joseph Golan, Edward Druzinsky, Sidney Harth and Alice Clevenger; Lyric Opera Orchestra principal viola Keith Conant; WFMT program host Andy Karzas; and former Chicago American critic Roger Dettmer.
They will be missed.