John von Rhein, the classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune since 1977, previews performing arts events come to the Windy City this fall in a conversation with WFMT program director David Polk. Von Rhein weighs in on performances at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ear Taxi Festival, Chicago Opera Theater, and more. Listen to their conversation or read a transcript below, and tell us what events you’re eagerly anticipating in the Chicago area this fall. Their conversation will be broadcast Monday, September 26, 2016 at 10:00 pm.
DP: There is so much classical music happening in Chicago this fall at not only the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera but at the many smaller organizations that perform in our area. Add to that the festivals, including the largest new music festival to ever happen in Chicago, and it can be hard to choose what to attend. To help, I’ve invited John Von Rhein back to our studio to provide his recommendations for what not to mess next year. Von Rhein will be celebrating his 40th year as the classical music critic at The Chicago Tribune.
JvR: It all blends together, David. It’s really one big season. There used to be a clear break, but no longer.
DP: Why don’t we start with Lyric Opera of Chicago. You were very enthusiastic about Lyric the last time we spoke, when we did a review of the last part of the previous season which will which is still on our website. You’ve you’ve written about two major or lyric productions coming up and that is Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” which is part of the “Ring Cycle,” and “Les Troyens.” What makes these two productions so important and monumental?
JvR: Well first of all any production of “The Ring” anywhere in the world is important and attracts attention all over the world among Wagner lovers and opera lovers in general. This is the first “Ring” at Lyric in well over a decade. The previous one they revived twice. Last time, I think, it was 2005 the Everding “Ring.” This will be a completely new one.
Part of it, is to show off a new generation of Wagner singers as well as some European singers who General Director Anthony Freud has identified in Europe and who music director Andrew Davis wants to bring here. It also marks the return of the British director David Pountney who has never done a complete “Ring Cycle” before. He started one at English National Opera several years ago that never took off. So we’re getting a “Rheingold” really that has a lot of new elements to Chicago. It’s going to be almost radical, I might say, in a certain respect. I mean given the tech-driven, and ideological “Rings” all over the world – I think of the machine “Ring” at the Met, and the kind of crazy Eurotrash productions in Europe (we won’t mention any direct houses).
DP: But when you mention this ‘machine’ “Ring,” and what you’re referring to is this hugely expensive production. It was literally a machine the set was moving, and you may have seen it when it was broadcast on Great Performances.
JvR: Director Roberto Lapage was given a huge budget to work with and he seemed to put it all into the machinery rather than telling the story, which is paramount. David Pountney, in his “Ring” starting with “Rheingold” in October here at the Lyric, feels, and I tend to agree with him, that the “Ring of the Nibelungs,” being a saga, calls for a storytelling approach. I mean that’s what a saga is all about.
I’ve gone to the tech rehearsals, so I have a bit of an idea of what’s going on. It’ll start with a bare stage. As the E-flat chord rolls over the orchestra at the beginning of “Rheingold,” you’ll see a bare stage that will gradually take shape as singers and actors bring in parts of the scenery and actually created it before our eyes. So it’s going to be very interesting for that almost radical conception. It’s also interesting for the fact that it’s going to mark bass baritone Eric Owens first Wotan anywhere. He’s been a key figure and Lyric and will continue to be. Christine Goerke who is probably the leading Brunnhilde in the world is going to take over. Not this year but next year with “Walkure.
DP: So a lot of firsts here.
JvR: A lot of firsts.
DP: And I should mention that we invited Eric Owens to share some of his favorite Wagner recordings, so check on our Web site for those. We’ll have the chance to see one of the “Ring” productions each year, and then all of them together.
JvR: Three complete cycles in the spring of 2020. It’s going to be quite a journey over these years. Then the other big event of the season is the first production at the Lyric of the Berlioz “Trojans,” “Les Troyens,” a major undertaking for any opera company. Lyric had talked about it well over a decade ago, but for various reasons was unable to do it. Now we’re getting it with Sir Andrew conducting, another new production, another British stage director Tim Albery. Christine Goerke, who I just mentioned will be Cassandra, Sophie Koch will be Dido, and Brandon Jovanovich will sing the hero Aeneas.
DP: Is it the length of the opera that makes it such a big undertaking?
JvR: Part of it. Though there’s also the sheer difficulty of the music, there’s a huge choral component. The chorus here has been working on it for some time now. There’s a big cast. It’s just a very epic, demanding opera. And the stage craft is probably one of the most demanding of all 19th century Arment romantic operas in terms of the stage craft. So they’ve got their work cracked out for them. Lyric is only doing five performances, interestingly enough. They scale the tickets to the skies and probably will do very well. But if you’re looking for a single ticket you would probably be advised to get an early start on that.
DP: Do you think it’s only five performances because of the expense?
JvR: I think it’s a lot of that. Just the fact that to assemble all the cast for more than those five performances would be very difficult within the terms of a repertoire season. Around that same time we have some other interesting things. The soprano Albina Shagimuratova will be returning in the title role of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” a role that she’s made his signature part around the world. That will be new to Chicago production in October. Ferruccio Furlanetto will be starring in his signature role (or one of them) in “Don Quichotte” of Massenet – not a work that turns up very often, so Massenet fans should pay attention to that.
DP: It just seems like there’s so much at stake with these huge productions coming up. If you were at Lyric working, would you be on edge right now.
JvR: Well I don’t know about that. They’ve certainly had a lot of planning for this. Tech rehearsals have been going on since mid summer. And the chorus, as I mentioned, has been rehearsing feverishly. The orchestra, under Sir Andrew, is up to its ears in Wagner and Berlioz right now.
So I mean yes there are things riding on it. But on the other hand Lyric does not make idle casting decisions and or idle production decisions. So I think matters would seem to be well in hand.
DP: So a lot of excitement happening at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Later on I want to talk about our “second” opera company, as you call them, Chicago Opera Theater. But before we get there, let’s move on to the Chicago Symphony and the Zell music director Riccardo Muti of the Chicago Symphony returns right away to open the season and you’ll see that as one of your highlights.
JvR: Yes, Muti is beginning his seventh season as music director. I think this season ahead shows a bit more balance, a bit more diversity, a bit more adventure from the music director and others than we perhaps got last season. I’m looking forward to a number of things this fall. Muti is kind of known for resurrecting real Italian rarities, particularly this fall with 20th century orchestral repertoire that *isn’t* Ottorino Respighi.
He’s doing a pair of works, the second subscription concert, the mezzo Joyce Di Donato will sing a wonderful cycle by Giueseppe Martucci that nobody knows much called “Le canzone dei ricordi,” which simply means songs of remembrance. It’s a beautiful song cycle. Muti is pairing it with Alfredo Catalani orchestral piece that really nobody knows, I don’t think it’s even been recorded, “Contemplazione.” So that’s quite unusual.*
He’s opening with the Bruckner 7th Symphony, he’s doing the Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. So we’re touching on key Germanic repertoire. Later on, speaking of Germanic repertoire, he’s doing a Brahms cycle and balancing that out with some unusual things.
The first CSO performances ever of the Prokofiev cantata based on his film score for the Eisenstein “Ivan the Terrible.” That’ll be a winter event. We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves because there’s a lot of fall to talk about right now. But I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to the 125th anniversary concert finale of our celebration of that milestone and the orchestra’s history.
DP: Which began officially with the previous gala last fall.
JvR: So this will be October and it will recreate the very first program given by the very first music director Theodore Thomas, who founded the orchestra 1891 in the Auditorium Theater. This will be at Orchestra Hall, of course, and it will include the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto with Daniil Trifonov and the Beethoven 5th Symphony.
DP: And as part of the 125th year, a lot of the focus has been on performing works that the CSO has premiered.
DP: Do you think that that has been an effective way to celebrate the 125th?
JvR: Well I think so. It certainly brought back a number of surprises. I mean who remember that the CSO gave the American premiere of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”? Who knows now that Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” that old Russian warhorse, was another one in that series. So yeah I think it was an interesting survey. I’m sorry in a way that more room could not have been found to do more contemporary scores along with that retrospective.
But you can only do so much in terms of a thirty-five week season. So I found it interesting. I think now we need to move on. We need to demonstrate, perhaps, a stronger commitment to living composers, to commissions, to world premieres, and things like that.
But there is some of that coming up it’s very interesting. Our resident composers are both writing works for the orchestra. Elizabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams will also be represented on the MusicNOW series of course. I do want to talk about the new music component that is so major and looms so large this fall.
DP: Well before we get there one other event I want to mention I’d like to talk about for the CSO is this community concert. Instead of a free concert in Millennium Park, this year, they’ll be going to the Apostolic Church of God on Chicago’s South Side. This is actually been sort of I think in the back of the mind of the maestro for a while hasn’t it?
JvR: The maestro really believes and he sincerely believes in reaching out to as broad segment of the community as possible. He loved the reception the orchestra was given at the Apostolic Church of God last year. I know the church fathers want the orchestra to come back every year. It’s just not possible given the scheduling, given the fact that they also want to do every other year at Millennium Park. So I think it’ll be great.
They’re repeating the program, I believe, with the Beethoven 5th. And the place is packed. I mean the sanctuary was so packed last time they had to move the audience in front of a closed circuit set up in the other chamber of the church. So I think these things are terribly important. I see that they’ve also, speaking of rescheduling, moved the concert that was to have been given last winter at Holy Name there rescheduling that.
DP: Well that must have been quite a scene to see such a packed venue for the orchestra.
JvR: It was extraordinary. It really was. The congregation there isn’t full of regular Orchestra Hall goers, and that’s all part of Muti’s mission. Of course he would love it if people came downtown to hear the regular subscription concerts. But in the meantime, he’s reaching out. He’s doing these really events that are partly designed to bring in new people, new ears, but also to demystify the classical music experience for a non-traditional shall we say public.
DP: I don’t know if a lot of classical music attendees listeners know how big Chicago is in the music scene in the world.
JvR: Well that is part of the objective behind Augusta Read Thomas, who is putting together this festival, which she literally did from the grassroots on up. She’s a professor of composition at the University of Chicago and also former CSO resident composer. This is an incredible event and I think it’s going to bring a lot of attention to Chicago. It’s going to dramatize for a lot of locals how much what really the wealth of talent, creativity, expertise there is among Chicago composers and performers.
Those statistics are pretty boggling David. I mean 32 events representing the work of nearly 90 living composers, more than half of the events free at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance and the Chicago Cultural Center. 27 hours of new music, including 55 world premieres. You know to me it’s fascinating in many ways. But Chicago new music – in my 40 years – here has been a series of islands; independent activity.
There is some spillover of audiences of course. But basically, groups have been kind of working in their own spaces. This is a completely different concept, where they work under the same umbrella, sometimes sharing personnel, really working for the same cause which is to demonstrate, as I say, the breadth the depth the diversity of new music in the city.
It’s a terrific idea. And our hats have to be off to Gusty Thomas for putting this together. It’s an amazing undertaking she co-curated the event with Steven Burns of the Fulcrum Point New Music Project. But most of the credit must go to her and I’m looking forward to it. I’m getting in training right now, shall we say, for this. Six straight days of new music. It’s going to be exhausting, exhilarating, daunting, tiring – all at the same time.
DP: And no two events happening at the exact same time, so you could go to every single concert if you want.
JvR: You could go to every single one. They should give out gold stars or more to people who have lasted the entire marathon. Maybe T-shirts made up with “I survived the marathon. I survived Ear Taxi.
Part of it you can’t really prepare for because so much of this will be brand new, fresh ink pieces you might be familiar with some of the work of some of the composers. But that’s part of the fun of this – to go in and with virgin ears and kind of just take in the experience.
In many ways I don’t want to prepare. I think I want to be dazzled. I want to be surprised. It doesn’t mean that everything is going to be great. Given the sheer concentration of music, that is probably not possible with any new music festival. But the point is that the groups are putting some of their best effort into these new pieces. They’ve been preparing all summer for it. And Gusty has been dashing around taking care of last minute this or that.
It’s a real event for Chicago that the rest of the country will be paying attention to. I know New Music America will be here. They’re doing live streaming. They’re be five sound installations around town just a lot of incredible activity going on.
DP: Did she tell you why she called it Ear Taxi?
JvR: Yeah. It’s kind of funny. She had a kind of vision at one point of a series of composer heads with taxis kind of emanating out of them. So that’s sort of the operative word. t’s it’s a clever name for what I think is a very resourceful, imaginative creation. And so we’ll see how it comes off.
DP: So allow yourself to be taken on a musical journey. I once spoke to the late American composer Steven Stucky, and one of the main points that he wanted to make to the audience (it was before a U of C performance downtown or maybe Chicago Chamber Musicians concert) was that it’s new. Not everything is going to be to your liking and that’s OK.
JvR: That’s right. Why should it be? And I don’t think composers go into it with that idea. But a lot of it may stick. I always look at it like firing a lot of buckshot on the wall and you see what sticks. But it’s great that these composers, 85 or 86 of them, are being represented. And more power to Gusty. I asked her if she wants to do this again, and she kind of rolled her eyes and said, “Well, this was a lot of work.”
DP: Already a year ago we were attending a preview, and I think it was announced two years ago. So if you’ve never been to a new music group in Chicago, here you can go to any of them in the span of one week.
JvR: And for a very little amount of money, too. And as I say, most of the events are free. So I’m looking forward to that very much.
DP: Are there other any other festivals happening this fall that we should be aware of?
JvR: Yes. Going on right now is the 11th Chicago Latino Music Festival, an event that will continue right through December 1st. I see in adjoining studio is Elbio Barilari, the host of WFMT’s Fiesta!, doing his program. Elbio and Gustavo Leone, another Chicago composer, are the dauntless organizers of this festival. Some very nice things coming up on that one as well that people should be paying attention to.
As a matter of fact, they’re kind of piggybacking with Ear Taxi with one of their events. So it kind of highlights some of the symbiosis that’s going on with Ear Taxi and other groups. MusicNOW is going to be giving the last program in Ear Taxi’s packed six days of concerts. I think those are the two main festivals but I could be wrong there could be others lurking around.
DP: You interviewed Elbio when you were writing an article about the Latino Music Festival, and you said something to the effect of “a composer who is Latino could very well be writing music that sounds from anywhere and vice versa.”
JvR: These labels are too confining. Right now, there is a kind of international, musical dialogue going on. There has been for some time, and national schools tend to get subsumed to that. It’s not that there aren’t recognizably “national” pieces being written, but I think we do the composers a disservice by trying to pigeonhole them too much. And I know Elbio and Gustavo have really tried to show the international reach of Latino American composers and Spanish composers as well. So I think we have to respect that and kind of welcome again the diversity that can result.
DP: Now if there had to be a trend in the season – maybe I’m wrong – but it seems like it has to do with early music and Baroque music. Just the last time we were talking, we were talking about the unfortunate demise of Baroque Band, a group that was around for I think 11 seasons. And then all of a sudden, there was a new group. We have Chicago Opera Theater performing music by Purcell later this season. Haymarket, which is an early opera performance ensemble, has been doing very well. Do you see trends in seasons?
JvR: Well, I don’t know about that. Early music comes in a strange waves. It keeps reinventing itself in different forms in Chicago. Out of the ashes a Baroque Band have sprung a couple of very interesting projects. I cited in my fall preview in the Tribune the appearance of a new group called Third Coast Baroque. The nucleus of players of that group will be Haymarket people. They’re welcoming this new kid on the block, the new kid being Vienna-based early music specialist Ruben Dubrovsky, who has started up an ensemble that looks to be a little bit different from what Baroque Band and some of the earlier Chicago groups have been doing. They’re opening with a pair of concerts in, I believe, November, with Monteverdi and Mexican Baroque music. So we’re looking with interest at that group.
Haymarket will have resurrected a Haydn opera, done in period style (at lower pitch). They used to perform at Main Stage, but now they’re making the Athenaeum Theatre their home base. It’s about over 1,000 seats I guess. The flag ship early music group in Chicago, Newberry Consort, will be celebrating its 30th anniversary. Hard to believe. So they’ve got some very interesting things planned as well.
DP: Including Elizabethan comedy?
JvR: Kind of. Elizabethan vaudeville, I’d say, based on an authentic Elizabethan comedian William Kempe. So they’re kind of recreating some of these more popular entertainments that were all the rage during Elizabeth’s time. We have the Callipygian Players, another period ensemble, doing its annual Messiah with Bella Voce. And of course the granddaddy of all established early music ensembles, Music of the Baroque, is opening its season with Nicholas Kraemer doing Handel’s Alexander’s Feast. Early music, you might say, is a growth industry, but we seem to take one step backward for every step forward we do. But it keeps the scene healthy and vital and diverse.
DP: So we’ve talked about our our big 2, the CSO and lyric, and the the new music scene and Ear Taxi Music Festival. What else are we missing here?
JvR: We are missing Chicago Opera Theater we haven’t really talked about what they’re doing. I find it interesting that Andreas Mitisek, the director, is sort of leading a nomadic existence with the company. As you mentioned, two new venues this fall for the company. They’re opening their season in late September or early October with Frank Martin’s “The Love Potion.” It’s basically a cantata or oratorio based on the Tristan and Isolde legend. They’re doing that at the Music Box Theatre. I’ve been told the acoustics are very good. And so that’s going to be unusual in the Mitisek style. And then as you mentioned David, they’re doing Purcell’s “Fairy Queen,” downtown at the Studebaker Theater, which has been very nicely renovated and refurbished. Haymarket players will be the pit band for for that. Jory Vinikour, who is best known as an early music keyboard player, will be conducting. So looking forward to those two events as well.
DP: That’s another group that’s really trying to break the mold. Not only in the Music Box Theatre, but we’ve seen operas that they’ve put on in swimming pools. I’m sure I’m missing some other unusual venues as well.
JvR: Well, it makes sense. You’re not an alternative opera company if you’re just a little Lyric. So leave the big repertoire to Anthony Freud and company and do these pieces that nobody else is doing. Later in the season, COT is doing the Midwest premiere of the Philip Glass Walt Disney opera called “The Perfect American.”
DP: And to specify it’s about Walt Disney but it’s not produced by Disney. [Laughs]
JvR: That’s very true. I don’t think the Disney organization would want to produce it! But this is a big event, and we look forward to that as well. So that’s the main operatic activity.
But there are all kinds of other things. Choral activity is huge in Chicago. That does seem to be growing all the time. Chamber music is another growth industry. We haven’t talked about that. Not a week goes by without a couple of chamber groups doing programs. So it’s a lot to keep the music critics (the few of us who are left) busy, but keeping audiences on the move as well.
DP: I can only imagine. I know that a lot of people are curious as to how you personally keep track of it all. How do you decide what you’re going to go to. You probably get asked this all the time! [Laughs]
JvR: I am, and I never have any ready answer to it. Obviously there are organizations that demand the coverage, the CSO and Lyric. But I try to get around as much as one person can.
DP: You once wrote in your column about the Chicago Youth Symphony or you’ll go out to the suburbs.
JvR: Absolutely. I wish I could get around as much to the ‘burbs as possible, because there’s a tremendous amount of worthwhile activity out there. But what I can’t call attention to in terms of sheer reviewing, I try to call attention to in my weekly column, recommendations in my Friday Classical Corner in our On the Town section. So at least to demonstrate to our readers that this is important, this is something you might want to investigate.
DP: Chris Jones, your colleague, was quoted in an article in The Washington Post about previews, and the tension between allowing groups to work on a production before reviewing it. We have so many, as we’ve discussed before, really small, almost like artistic startup organizations in Chicago. How do you think about reviewing and critiquing those types of groups that are just getting off the ground? Is there sort of a preview period for smaller groups as they’re just starting?
JvR: Yeah I think that’s a good way of looking at it. For a group that is really just starting out, you probably are not going into it with the same standards that you would bring to the CSO or Ravinia or Millennium Park or Lyric. I kind of want to see how a group handles itself, what their credentials are. Maybe give them a couple dry run performances to first of all, find their artistic voice and to show us more of what they’re about. You cut them a little bit of slack, which is not to say that you don’t apply critical standards eventually. We did that with Baroque Band. The Tribune coverage continued over 11 years to see what this group can do for us. Let’s see how they can improve. Let’s see if they backslide. I have to say that in some respects Baroque Band did not measure up to its early promise. And as a critic, you have to say that. That’s completely different from the function that we have to kind of beat the drums in calendars and in columns and preview pieces. But when it comes to actually covering them, then you cover them honestly. Sometimes you cover them tough as the case may be.
DP: Now I know we didn’t get to a lot of groups in Chicago, and there’s just so much and there’s not enough time to do it. But before we run out of time, I did want to ask you about the BBC Proms. You spent a week there just a few weeks ago, and we’ve been featuring music from the proms and concerts from the Proms all month long here on WFMT. I’m not sure that many listeners really understand the significance of the Proms. It’s hard to convey. It’s billed as the largest classical music festival in the world. And you wrote a column saying that it would be hard to imagine this happening in the United States. What is so different about the Proms?
JvR: Well for one thing, I can’t think of any large city in the U.S. that has a Royal Albert Hall, which is the main venue for the Proms. I mean it’s this huge, gargantuan, Victorian wedding cake of a facility. It’s 7,000 seats but it seems much bigger when you’re actually there. That is not possible practically anywhere else in the world. Also, where are you going to get a festival that has resources like the BBC does to bring in [the] Berlin Philharmonic one night, Chicago Symphony the other night Orchestre de Paris, all the London orchestras.
It is just a daily goldmine, a smorgasbord if you will, of performances. What makes it unique is the audience. The Proms audience is unlike any audience anywhere in the world. They are knowledgeable, they are vocal, they are enthusiastic. The Prom-ers stand through the concerts. They get tickets for only $7 each for the privilege of standing and hearing all this music. Friends of mine bought season tickets, and they stood for every concert throughout the summer. My editor was asking me that very question. Could the CSO learn from that? And I thought, well not really, because you’d have to bring over the Albert Hall, you’d have to bring over visiting orchestras and chamber ensembles and early music groups. You’d have to concert operas. And to broadcast it all! BBC Radio, Radio 3, carries every concert live. Can you imagine that happening in America given our commercial restraints? And BBC TV also telecasts a fair number of the concerts. So it’s an amazing hothouse of music literally speaking.
DP: The last night of the Proms, the grand finale, is full of British patriotism.
JvR: The Last Night of the Proms, which is an institution within an institution. One thing I have to also mention that sets the Proms apart and is not necessarily reflected by radio samplings is the amount of new music they do. The BBC commissions many pieces every summer. They may be short pieces, and they may precede more standard repertoire, but they’re out there doing a lot of contemporary music. Not just British composer,s but other European based composers. This year I heard a Matthias Pintscher work for cello and orchestra with Alisa Weilerstein. That also gives a kind of newness and freshness and immediacy to the Proms so it isn’t just a venerable tradition kind of replaying itself in the same old ways every year.
DP: Well it’s something we’ll all have to add to our travel lists. Well John von Rhein, it’s been a lot of fun and very interesting to hear and talk about the highlights of this upcoming season. I would say happy new cultural year, but I guess as you mentioned at the beginning, it keeps on going and going.
JvR: There are no clear lines of demarcation anymore. Thank you.
*Riccardo Muti recorded Catalani’s “Contemplazione” with the La Scala Philharmonic in a 1998 Sony release.