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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins the music world in mourning the death of Israeli mezzo-soprano Mira Zakai, who died on May 20, 2019. She was seventy-six.

Mira Zakai in 2013 (Daniel Tchetchik photo)

Zakai appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on several notable occasions, both in the concert hall and in the recording studio. A complete list is below.

MOZART Mass in C Major, K. 317 (Coronation)
March 13, 14, and 15, 1980, Orchestra Hall
Rafael Kubelík, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
Mira Zakai, mezzo-soprano
Alexander Oliver, tenor
Malcolm King, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Originally recorded by WFMT for radio broadcast, this was released on the CSO’s From the Archives, vol. 13 (Chicago Symphony Chorus: A Fortieth Anniversary Celebration).

MAHLER Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (Resurrection)
May 5, 6, 7, and 8, 1980, Medinah Temple, (recording sessions only)
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Isobel Buchanan, soprano
Mira Zakai, mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
The symphony was performed in Orchestra Hall on April 24, 25, and 26 in Orchestra Hall and on May 2 and 3, 1980, in Carnegie Hall with Buchanan and Christa Ludwig as soloists. James Mallinson produced the recording, and James Lock and John Dunkerley were the balance engineers for London Records. The recording won the 1981 Grammy Award for Best Classical Album and Best Classical Orchestral Recording from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

MAHLER Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major
October 2, 3, 4, and 6, 1980, Orchestra Hall
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Faye Robinson, soprano (October 2, 3, and 4)
Jill Gomez, soprano (October 6)
Teresa Cahill, soprano
Jo Ann Pickens, soprano
Jan DeGaetani, mezzo-soprano
Mira Zakai, mezzo-soprano
Kenneth Riegel, tenor (October 2, 3, and 4)
Dennis Bailey, tenor (October 6)
Brent Ellis, baritone
Theo Adam, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus
Doreen Rao, director

SCHOENBERG Moses und Aron
April 19 and 21, 1984, Orchestra Hall
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Franz Mazura, speaker
Philip Langridge, tenor
Barbara Bonney, soprano
Daniel Harper, tenor
Kurt Link, baritone
Aage Haugland, bass
Mira Zakai, mezzo-soprano
Herbert Wittges, baritone
Thomas Dymit, tenor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Members of the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus
Doreen Rao, director
The opera was recorded in Orchestra Hall on April 23, 24, 30, and May 1, 1984. James Mallinson produced the recording, and James Lock and John Pellowe were the engineers for London Records. The recording won the 1985 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

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Georg Solti conducted the British premiere of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at Covent Garden in June 1965. In Memoirs, he wrote: “Although I had conducted works by Bartók and Stravinsky, I had never before conducted twelve-tone music of such complexity. Moses is a much harder work than, for example, Lulu. There is a bel canto, legato quality to Lulu that is in contrast to the predominantly spoken and contrapuntal Moses. I remember feeling depressed as I grappled with the score during my 1964 Christmas holiday: I simply didn’t know how to learn the piece, how to get it in my bloodstream. Eventually, I succeeded, but the further I forged ahead, the more I became aware of the enormity of the practical task ahead of me. Schoenberg’s written indications of main theme and second theme, for instance, help performers to grasp what is going on, but bringing those indications to life is anything but easy. . . . It was so well received that it was repeated the following year.”

With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Solti led Schoenberg’s opera on two occasions, in November 1971 and April 1984.

Moses und Aron in concert at Orchestra Hall on November 13, 1971

November 11, 12, and 13, 1971, at Orchestra Hall
November 20, 1971, at Carnegie Hall
(performed in English in a translation by David Rudkin)
Moses Hans Hotter, speaker
Aaron Richard Lewis, tenor
A Young Girl Karen Altman, soprano
A Young Man Kenneth Riegel, tenor
Another Man Benjamin Matthews, baritone
Priest Donald Gramm, bass-baritone
An Invalid Woman Emilie Miller, mezzo-contralto
Ephraimite Stephen Swanson, baritone
A Naked Youth Kenneth Riegel, tenor
Four Naked Virgins Barbara Pearson and Nancy Clevenger, sopranos; Sharon Powell, mezzo-soprano; Elizabeth Muir-Lewis, alto
Three Elders Alfred Reichel and Jack Abraham, baritones; Eugene Johnson, bass
Six Solo Voices in the Orchestra Barbara Pearson, soprano; Sharon Powell, mezzo-soprano; Elizabeth Muir-Lewis, alto; William Wahman, tenor; Stephen Swanson and Arthur Berg, baritones
Chicago Symphony Chorus; Margaret Hillis, director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Theatre Chorus; Barbara Born, director

April 19 and 21, 1984, at Orchestra Hall
(performed in German)
Moses Franz Mazura, speaker
Aaron Philip Langridge, tenor
A Young Girl Barbara Bonney, soprano
A Young Man Daniel Harper, tenor
Another Man Kurt Link, baritone
Priest Aage Haugland, bass
An Invalid Woman Mira Zakai, contralto
Ephraimite Herbert Wittges, baritone
A Naked Youth Thomas Dymit, tenor
Four Naked Virgins Jean Braham and Barbara Pearson, sopranos; Cynthia Anderson and Karen Zajac, contraltos
Three Elders Kurt Link and Richard Cohn, baritones; Paul Grizzell, bass
Six Solo Voices in the Orchestra Sally Schweikert, soprano; Elizabeth Gottlieb, mezzo-soprano; Karen Brunssen, contralto; Roald Henderson, tenor; Bradley Nystrom, baritone; William Kirkwood, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus; Margaret Hillis, director
Members of the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus; Doreen Rao, director
Elizabeth Buccheri, repetiteur

The opera was recorded at Orchestra Hall on April 23, 24, 30, and May 1, 1984. James Mallinson produced the recording, and James Lock and John Pellowe were the engineers for London Records. The recording won the 1985 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Following the release of the recording, Arnold Whittall in Gramophone wrote:

“Sir Georg Solti has come to record Moses und Aron the best part of two decades after he conducted the opera in Peter Hall’s Covent Garden production. . . . His faith in Schoenberg’s most ambitious dramatic project remains undimmed and he believes that, with increasing familiarity, the music becomes ‘clearer, less complicated, and more expressive and romantic.’ This may well be true, but I think that becoming familiar with the opera also reinforces its remarkable ambiguity and originality. Moses und Aron is a necessarily and challengingly diverse composition. At one extreme, the choral counterpoint with its traditional imitative techniques: at the other, the concentratedly expressionist orchestral writing. Then there is the almost blatant, post-Mahlerian vulgarity of parts of the ‘Dance round the Golden Calf,’ in complete contrast to the visionary, discomfiting density of scenes like the first, in which superimpositions of speech and song, voices and instruments, leave the listener straining to find the centre, to discover the idea behind the images in this confrontation between human and divine. Add to all this the fact that there is a text for a third act that Schoenberg never set, and we have something which, however expressive and romantic, is still very much a problem piece.

“The odds are that any studio recording of Moses will be stronger in textural clarity and accuracy of detail than in theatrical atmosphere. Yet the latter is certainly not lacking in Solti’s performance, especially in the second act. Since Act l is less conventionally theatrical anyway, it is not surprising that it is here that you are likely to be most aware of artists working conscientiously in a recording studio (Orchestra Hall, Chicago). But there are moments of excitement in Act I, too, which seem to bear out Solti’s confident claim that ‘the more we rehearsed and played the easier the work became. . . .’

“It is certainly good that the recording does not attempt artificially to oversimplify or stratify the work’s blended textures, and it well serves the music’s vertiginous exploration of the borderland between complexity and chaos, inscrutable divinity and argumentative humanity. In this precarious balance lies the impact and quality of the whole performance, with its generally good supporting cast; it also explains the abiding fascination of Schoenberg’s last attempt to bring a great philosophical issue to dramatic life.”

the vault

Theodore Thomas

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