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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony were given on April 6 and 7, 1950, in Orchestra Hall under the baton of guest conductor George Szell. Since then, the work has been led by music directors Rafael Kubelík, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim; principal conductor Bernard Haitink; principal guest conductors Carlo Maria Giulini and Pierre Boulez; and Ravinia Festival music directors James Levine and James Conlon; along with guest conductors Sir John Barbirolli, Lawrence Foster, Michiyoshi Inoue, Hans Rosbaud, and Michael Tilson Thomas.

The Orchestra has recorded the work on three notable occasions, as follows.

Carlo Maria Giulini, the Orchestra’s first principal guest conductor, led Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in December 1971 and March 1975 before returning in April 1976 to perform and record the work. Following the first concert of that residency, Karen Monson in the Chicago Daily News wrote that “each time the aristocratic maestro meets the transcendent symphony, the relationship becomes more and more special, Giulini and the Orchestra have delved into the deepest secrets of this music, and Thursday evening they delivered a performance so rich and complete . . .”

In the Chicago Tribune, Thomas Willis called the performance “one of Giulini’s great nights in Orchestra Hall.” Recording sessions were scheduled for the following week, and “by the time the tape is rolling, this could be the most heartfelt and compelling recorded version of Mahler’s grief-stricken penultimate symphony. . . . The Chicago Symphony players will take any risks for Giulini. If he wishes them to play softer than soft, applying bow to string, or breath to mouthpiece or reed, they proceed to just this side of bobble or discomfiting silence. . . . No other guest has such control over orchestral color and emotional variation.”

Deutsche Grammophon was on hand on April 5 and 6, 1976, to record the symphony in Medinah Temple. Günther Breest was the executive producer and Klaus Scheibe the recording engineer. The release won the 1977 Grammy Award for Best Classical Orchestral Performance from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Eighth music director Sir Georg Solti first led the Orchestra in Mahler’s symphony at Orchestra Hall and Carnegie Hall in April 1981 before taking it on the road to Lucerne, Paris, Amsterdam, and London later that year. Back in Chicago, Solti led a concert performance (benefiting the musicians’ pension fund) on April 28, 1982, and recorded the symphony on May 2 and 4 in Orchestra Hall.

Reviewing in Gramophone magazine, Richard Osborne noted: “When Solti conducted Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in London in the autumn of 1981 the critic of The Financial Times observed: ‘Solti obviously knew how this music should gobut not why.’ Such a reading would be an evident act of self-parody, for it is to this very theme—the modern world’s nightmarish preoccupation with sensation, spiraling, self-referring and impossible to assuage—that Mahler so fearlessly addresses himself in the symphony’s third movement, the Rondo Burleske. It’s clear, though, from the present recording, made in Orchestra Hall, Chicago in May 1982, that Solti’s sense of the music is a good deal more rooted than it appeared to be amid the unsettling razzmatazz of an end-of-tour London performance.

“The new performance has a measure of repose about it as well as much splendour. The second movement is robust and resilient as Mahler directs. There is defiance and obstinacy in the third movement, an awful power which illuminates the music rather than the orchestra’s known expertise.”

James Mallinson produced the recording, and James Lock was the engineer for London Records. The recording won 1983 Grammy awards for Best Orchestral Recording, Best Engineered Recording—Classical, and Best Classical Album.

Soon after being named as the Orchestra’s third principal guest conductor, Pierre Boulez was in Chicago to lead four performances of Mahler’s Ninth in November December 1995.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma wrote that Boulez led “one of classical music’s most profound meditations on relentless death and tumultuous life” as a “study in musical clarity, elegant balances, and proportion. . . . Many conductors play up the contrasts, creating dramatic mood shifts. Boulez and the CSO were after something more subtle.” John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune added that Boulez “[filtered] the work through his own modernist sensibility. Granted, there are ambiguities and uncertainties in this symphony that resist so rational an approach. But there are also levels of purely musical meaning few other conductors have uncovered. The otherworldly stillnesses, the demonic humor, the desolate nostalgia, the strange lapses into folkish banality registered that much more strongly because the hand organizing them was so calm and precise. . . . Let us hope the studio sessions capture in full the splendor of the live performances.”

For Deutsche Grammophon, the work was recorded at Medinah Temple on December 2 and 4, 1995. Roger Wright was the executive producer, Karl-August Naegler recording producer and editor, Ulrich Vette was the balance engineer, and Jobst Eberhardt and Stephan Flock were recording engineers. The release won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 on May 17, 18, 19, and 22, 2018.

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins our friends at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in mourning the passing of beloved Chicago actor John Mahoney. He died in Chicago on February 4, at the age of 77.

John Mahoney in rehearsal at the Steppenwolf Theatre in 2008 (Chris Walker photo for the Chicago Tribune)

John Mahoney appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on three occasions, once at the Ravinia Festival and twice in Orchestra Hall, as follows:

July 14, 2001 (Ravinia Festival)
MENDELSSOHN A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
John de Lancie, Narrator/Puck and director
John Mahoney, Bottom
Janet Zarish, Titania
Timothy Gregory, Oberon
Stacey Tappan, soprano
Lauren McNeese, mezzo-soprano
Chicago Children’s Choir
Josephine Lee, director

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma set the stage. “It was a dream of a midsummer’s night at the Ravinia Festival Saturday, the kind of warm, clear evening just made for picnicking and listening to music outdoors. The music offered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andrew Davis provided a perfect match. After intermission, the pavilion light dimmed and sprites with glowing wands flitted through the night as the orchestra, singers and actors including John Mahoney . . . as the bumptious Bottom [he was] an endearing monster.”

April 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21, 2002 (Orchestra Hall)
STRAVINSKY The Soldier’s Tale
William Eddins, conductor
Pinchas Zukerman, violin
John Mahoney, Narrator
Paul Adelstein, Soldier
Hollis Resnik, Devil
Tina Cannon, dancer
John Bruce Yeh, clarinet
David McGill, bassoon
Craig Morris, trumpet
Jay Friedman, trombone
Joseph Guastafeste, bass
Edward Atkatz, percussion
Peter Amster, director and choreographer
Rafael Viñoly, stage designer

“Seizing the opportunity to do something different, the CSO teamed with Steppenwolf Theatre to stage The Soldier’s Tale, which Stravinsky wrote in 1918 as a theater piece,” wrote Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Mahoney was the dispassionate Narrator and Hollis Resnik a fashionable Devil in a generally lively staging by Peter Amster. Zukerman and six CSO musicians, conducted by William Eddins, perched on a tall, black platform centerstage, while Mahoney, Resnik, Paul Adelstein as the Soldier and dancer Tina Cannon spilled around the set of raised platforms and a few props devised by Rafael Viñoly. . . . Amster and his colleagues created a compelling drama. . . . Relaxed, making no judgments as he chronicled the Soldier’s victories and defeats, [Mahoney] was a sympathetic guide to Stravinsky’s morality tale.”

November 17, 18, 20, and 23, 2004 (Orchestra Hall)
BEETHOVEN Egmont
Mikko Franck, conductor
John Mahoney, narrator
Erin Wall, soprano

Again, Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times described the event. “Mahoney returned to Symphony Center Thursday night to narrate a rare performance of Beethoven’s complete incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont. Goethe’s play about a former loyalist fighting Spanish colonialism in the 16th century Netherlands was quickly forgotten, but Beethoven’s Egmont Overture has long been a concert hall staple. It was fascinating to hear it in its complete context, especially with the young Finnish conductor Mikko Franck honing in on the music’s noble bearing and expansive reach. . . . In the minimal staging devised by director Sheldon Patinkin, [Mahoney] managed to turn the obscure Egmont into a flesh-and-blood presence. With his straightforward delivery and Beethoven’s evocative music reinforcing each scene, he brought us glimpses of a brave soldier and king’s loyal administrator destroyed by political intrigue and despotism. The thirst for liberty is a recurring motif in Beethoven’s life and much of his music. Hearing the entire Egmont, the movie music of its day, was a reminder of how strongly Beethoven believed in that ideal.”

Numerous tribute have been posted online, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Timesand CNN, among others.

 

Orchestra Hall, January 19, 1958

On January 19, 1958, fifteen-year-old Daniel Barenboim made his piano recital debut at Orchestra Hall, with the following program:

BACH/Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)
BRAHMS Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1
BEN-HAIM Intermezzo and Toccata, Op. 34

The next day in the American, Roger Dettmer wrote, “Only very occasionally some youngster will happen along who seems to have been born adult . . . The prodigy turned out yesterday afternoon to be Daniel Barenboim, born fifteen years ago in Argentina. The talent is huge, the technique already formidable and he applied both to a virtuoso program [with] secure musical training and uncommon sensitivity of touch.”

He returned in November of that year and again every couple of years after that for more solo piano recitals, including—over the course of a month between February 26 and March 27, 1986—a series of eight concerts, traversing Beethoven’s complete cycle of piano sonatas.

After becoming the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director in September 1991, Barenboim made regular appearances as piano recitalist and chamber musician, collaborating with an extraordinary roster of instrumentalists and singers. He performed a dizzying array of repertoire, including Albéniz’s Iberia; Bach’s Goldberg Variations; Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations; Berg’s Chamber Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Thirteen Wind Instruments (with Pierre Boulez conducting); Brahms’s cello sonatas; Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Songs of a Wayfarer, and Rückert Lieder; Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time; Mozart’s complete violin sonatas; Schubert’s Winterreise; Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben; Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Wesendonk Lieder; and Wolf’s Italian Songbook; along with other piano works by Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, Schoenberg, and Schubert, among others.

Barenboim’s collaborators included instrumentalists Héctor Console, Lang Lang, Radu Lupu, Yo-Yo Ma, Rodolfo Mederos, Itzhak Perlman, András Schiff, Deborah Sobol, Maxim Vengerov, and Pinchas Zukerman, along with singers Kathleen BattleCecilia Bartoli, Angela Denoke, Plácido Domingo, Thomas Hampson, Robert Holl, Waltraud Meier, Thomas Quasthoff, Peter Schreier, and Bo Skovhus. He also invited countless members of the Orchestra to join him, including Stephen Balderston, Li-Kuo Chang, Robert Chen, Dale Clevenger, Larry Combs, Louise Dixon, Edward Druzinsky, Jay Friedman, Rubén González, Richard Graef, Joseph Guastafeste, John Hagstrom, Adolph Herseth, Richard Hirschl, Alex Klein, Donald Koss, Burl Lane, Samuel Magad, David McGill, Michael Mulcahy, Lawrence Neuman, Bradley Opland, Nancy Park, Donald Peck, Gene Pokorny, Mark Ridenour, James Ross, Norman Schweikert, John Sharp, Gregory Smith, Charles Vernon, Gail Williams, and members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus (prepared by Duain Wolfe), among many others.

June 4 and 11, 2006

During the final residency of his tenure as music director, Barenboim presented Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in two piano recitals: the first book on June 4, 2006; and the second book a week later, on June 11.

Reviewing the June 4 concert, John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune wrote that Barenboim, “brought the full color resources of a modern concert grand to bear on Bach’s pristinely ordered sound-world . . . Bach never intended for musicians to perform all the preludes and fugues in one gulp, but when they are executed at so exalted a level of thought, feeling, and spirituality, who’s to say they shouldn’t?”

Following the second installment, Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times added, “One of Barenboim’s gifts as a pianist is his ability to etch clear, long-lined, richly colored phrases with seemingly no effort [and in Bach’s music] we heard the foundation on which the rest of his music-making has been built. . . . The applause that brought Barenboim back for extra bows was fervent and heartfelt. Barenboim’s annual piano recitals have been high points of Chicago’s musical life for the past fifteen years. They are appreciated and will be deeply missed.”

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Dress rehearsal for The Marriage of Figaro, February 1992 (George Mott photo)

Dress rehearsal for The Marriage of Figaro, February 1992 (George Mott photo)

During Daniel Barenboim’s first season as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, several concerts included music by Mozart to commemorate the bicentennial of the composer’s death. The commemoration culminated in February 1992, with the transformation of Orchestra Hall into an opera house as Barenboim conducted (from memory) performances of the three operas by Mozart with librettos by Lorenzo Da PonteThe Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni. Presented semistaged in rotating repertory, the productions featured such leading singers as Lella Cuberli, Joan Rodgers, Cecilia Bartoli, Waltraud Meier, Ferruccio Furlanetto, and Michele Pertusi, with costumes by Oscar de la Renta.

Following The Marriage of Figaro, Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times called the performance “luxurious in the broadest and best sense. There was the CSO’s sumptuous sound, a fine roster of singers and inventive staging . . . [with] a rich elegance that fit beautifully in the affluent, contemporary stage universe created by directors Christopher and David Alden.” And in the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein added, “Indeed, hearing Mozart’s scoring as played by the CSO was without question the chief justification for Barenboim’s presenting the Da Ponte works on the subscription series. Seldom in any theater does one hear orchestral sonorities so warmly blended or impeccably balanced, yet with every detail in clear relief.”

This article also appears here.

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James Conlon (Todd Rosenberg photo)

James Conlon (Todd Rosenberg photo)

James Conlon began his tenure as the Ravinia Festival’s fourth music director on June 24, 2005, leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Ullmann’s Second Symphony and Mahler’s First Symphony. The programming that season of several works by Ullmann was part of a multiseason effort by Conlon to showcase music written by composers whose music was suppressed by the Nazi regime, remaining all but forgotten for decades following World War II.

“Sophisticated programming is one thing, of course. Thrilling performances are another. The ultimate success Friday night was the committed, profoundly nuanced performance each symphony received,” wrote Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 was a revelation. . . . The CSO positively glowed, most often with a low, lustrous burnish rather than a hectic gleam. In the final, frenzied movement, the Orchestra’s impeccable precision and tightly wound, urgent rhythmic drive set the blood racing.”

Joshua Guerrero, Michelle DeYoung, Latonia Moore, Roberto Alagna, and James Creswell, along with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Verdi’s Aida on August 3, 2013 (Patrick Gipson photo)

Joshua Guerrero, Michelle DeYoung,
Latonia Moore, Roberto Alagna, and James
Creswell—along with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus—in Verdi’s Aida on August 3, 2013 (Patrick Gipson photo)

Conlon’s eleven seasons at Ravinia’s helm included symphonies by Mahler; seldom-heard works by Korngold, Schulhoff, Schreker, and Zemlinsky; several of Mozart’s operas performed in the Martin Theatre; as well as Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Tosca; Strauss’s Salome; and Verdi’s Aida, Otello, and Rigoletto.

Conlon had made his debut with the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival on July 28, 1977, with violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Lynn Harrell as soloists in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major, Mendelsssohn’s Violin Concerto, and Brahms’s Double Concerto. Two days later, on July 30, he conducted Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with John Browning and Mahler’s First Symphony. Conlon first conducted the Orchestra at Orchestra Hall on November 14, 15, 16, and 19, 1991, leading the first symphonies by Mendelssohn and Mahler. He concluded his tenure at Ravinia on August 15, 2015, leading the Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

This article also appears here.

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McBurney

Gerard McBurney (Dan Rest photo)

On November 13, 2005—under the leadership of Martha Gilmer, vice president of artistic administration, and composer and writer Gerard McBurney—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra launched Beyond the Score with an in-depth analysis followed by a complete performance of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Daniel Harding conducted.

“The introduction deftly mixed vintage photos projected onto a huge overhead screen, excerpts from Strauss’s letters, commentary from his contemporaries, and short excerpts from the tone poem itself,” wrote Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “The pacing was seamless, the information on Strauss and his era coming in easily digestible but never watered-down nuggets. When the CSO played the entire work straight through after intermission, the large audience couldn’t help but feel like newly minted connoisseurs. Enjoying subtleties well below the surface beauties of Strauss’s tone poem, they were attentive, at times rapt. McBurney and his colleagues at the CSO succeeded brilliantly with the most difficult aspect of these kinds of programs: keeping the focus on the music.”

In May 2006, McBurney officially joined the staff of the CSOA as artistic programming advisor. Since then, the Beyond the Score concept evolved into freer and more vivid presentations and collaborations with a wide variety of art collections, scholars, libraries, folk musicians, and actors from all over the world.

A Pierre Dream

A Pierre Dream, November 14, 2014 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Highlights of the series have included thorough analyses of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Holst’s The Planets, and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde were presented as seamless dramatizations, and Pierre Boulez led Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin and closely advised on Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire. Concertmaster Robert Chen was featured in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade; and Gwendolyn Brown, an alumna of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center, performed Negro spirituals as part of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. In 2014, McBurney—collaborating with architect Frank Gehry—presented a special and comprehensive examination of music by Pierre Boulez.

This article also appears here.

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CSO050911: Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing at Millennium Park September 11, 2005 in Chicago, Illinois, including the performance of Aaron Copeland's "Lincoln Portrait" with narration by U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D, Illinois) © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2005

Senator Barack Obama onstage with William Eddins and the Orchestra at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, September 11, 2005 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

On September 11, 2005—the fourth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks and barely two weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave a free concert as part of Millennium Park’s Blockbuster Weekend, which also featured season-opening outdoor performances by Lyric Opera of Chicago and Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

William Eddins led The Star-Spangled Banner, William Schuman’s arrangement of Ives’s Variations on America, Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, and Rimsky- Korsakov’s Sheherazade. The narrator for Lincoln Portrait was freshman U.S. Senator Barack Obama.

Obama's autograph on a copy of Copland's Lincoln Portrait

Obama’s autograph on a copy of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma wrote: “When September 11 comes around each year, the craving for a moment of proverbial silence—a chance to slow down, remember, and mourn—is strong. Sunday’s concert, led by former CSO resident conductor William Eddins and featuring Senator Barack Obama as narrator in Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, provided just that kind of beneficent moment. Despite the steamy weather, a large crowd filled the pavilion’s seats and lawn, giving the CSO in general, and Obama in particular, vociferous applause. . . . Obama brought an orator’s skill without an actor’s slick veneer to Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. The comforting quality of his voice gave added emotional resonance to Lincoln’s words. The CSO was a powerful surging force behind him, alternately sinking into meditation and swelling to majestic heights.”

This article also appears here.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Michael Wilson photo)

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Michael Wilson photo)

This week we mark the tenth anniversary of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson‘s last appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, as mezzo-soprano soloist in Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 in March 2006.

Michael Tilson Thomas, who conducted those performances, remembers his friend and colleague: “None of us suspected that the Mahler 2 concerts would be Lorraine’s last performances. She was in great spirits and very engaged in the wonder of the whole experience. In between the performances I was playing piano for her in rehearsals of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder which we were to record only a few weeks later. One day we found a precious half hour of free time in the hall and played through the entire piece on stage. No one was present, but the performance that she gave in that empty hall was one of total commitment. It was beyond beautiful. It was confessional in a way that was overwhelming and somehow made me concerned for her. She was giving absolutely everything. After we went through the cycle we talked a bit about the song Liebst du um Schönheit? (Do you love beauty?). She was still finding her way with the song, which speaks so simply, so confessionally about love. I suggested that she think less about the process of singing it. She said, ‘Thank you Michael. I’ve got it. I’ll just feel it. I’ll just be it.’ She sang it again. It was a miracle. That miracle was what Lorraine was all about.”

On April 22, 23, and 24, 1999, she made her debut as soloist (as Lorraine Hunt) with the Orchestra in the world premiere of John Harbison‘s Four Psalms, led by Christoph Eschenbach. Lisa Saffer, Frank Kelley, and James Maddalena also were soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Duain Wolfe.

In the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein praised her “deep expressivity,” and in the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma added that Harbison’s opening prelude—a Hebrew prayer for mezzo-soprano—was “a masterstroke. Making her CSO debut, Hunt was an immediately galvanizing presence. Her voice was powerful and expressive, with gleaming high notes and a dusky, impassioned lower register. Lingering over her final lines, endlessly decorating each syllable as she implored God to transform her dreams, she seemed reluctant to end her conversation with the Lord.”

March 7, 2006

March 7, 2006 (David Robertson replaced James Levine and the program remained unchanged)

Hunt Lieberson—she married composer Peter Lieberson later in 1999—returned to Orchestra Hall on March 7, 2006, as soloist in her husband’s Neruda Songs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. David Robertson conducted. (Robertson replaced James Levine, who had been injured in an onstage fall during the previous week.)

“The other happy development was the presence of acclaimed mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She has dropped out of several announced engagements in recent seasons, reportedly due to health issues. That she was on hand as scheduled as soloist in the lush Neruda Songs, written for her by her husband Peter Lieberson, was a kind of musical bonus,” wrote Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Hunt Lieberson is a singer who inhabits the music rather than merely singing it, and her anguish in Sonnet XLV, whose first line reads, ‘Don’t go far off, not even for a day,’ was wrenching. In the final poem, a serene meditation on death, the glowing richness of her seductive mezzo created a sense of profound peace.”

Lieberson's Neruda Songs (Nonesuch release)

Lieberson’s Neruda Songs (Nonesuch release)

“Lieberson’s orchestral song cycle, a setting of five poems by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, deals with different facets of love: simple adoration, the joy and mystery of nature, the terror of separation, the struggle between yearning and contentment,” added von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “The composer wrote the cycle as an extended love letter to his wife, who sang them affectingly. It is a haunting, exquisitely crafted piece, mostly quiet and reflective, with luminous vocal lines that nestle in the delicate orchestration as one does in the arms of one’s beloved. Hunt Lieberson once more proved why she is America’s most indispensable classical singer. Her voice rose from a smoky sigh to an ecstatic peal in an instant; she didn’t just sing these poignant songs, she became them.”

(Hunt Lieberson had recorded the songs live with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Levine in November 2005. The subsequent release on Nonesuch earned a 2007 Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance.)

March 16, 17, and 18, 2006

March 16, 17, and 18, 2006

The following week, Hunt Lieberson shared the stage with soprano Celena Shafer and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (prepared by Duain Wolfe) on March 16, 17, and 18, 2006, in Mahler’s Symphony no. 2. Tilson Thomas conducted. (You can listen to her performance of the Urlicht here.)

In the Chicago Tribune, von Rhein wrote, “Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s entry in the Urlicht was so soft, so gentle, as to hold the audience at rapt attention. The mezzo-soprano sang as if utterly transfixed, appropriately so to suggest the simple voice of a child who believes she’s in heaven.” And in the Chicago Sun-Times, Delacoma added, “Floating on the air with the warmth of a low, vibrant cello, her opening solo was full of sympathy at humankind’s grief. Like a wise mother comforting an inconsolable child, her voice was soft but firm, never denying the pain of death but holding out the hope of resurrection.”

Less than four months later, Hunt Lieberson lost her battle with breast cancer on July 3, 2006, at the age of 52. Her appearances in Chicago in March were her last public performances.

Countless tributes—including Alex Ross in The New Yorker, Lloyd Schwartz on NPR, and Marc Geelhoed in Slate, among many others—were published. Peter Sellars, one of her most frequent collaborators, described her singing: “Her voice [fills] the room and you don’t know where it’s coming from. . . . It can be piercing and shocking in its intensity, and then this incredible balm of compassion and tenderness, of generosity that is poured out of her voice like a kind of liquid that is there to heal.”

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On a personal note . . .

I was lucky not only to be in the audience when Hunt Lieberson sang her husband’s Neruda Songs on March 7 but also to be onstage in the Chorus for the three performances of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Hunt Lieberson's program biography

Hunt Lieberson’s March 2006 program biography

On March 14, the day before our first session with the Orchestra, the Chorus had a rehearsal with Michael Tilson Thomas—what we call the conductor’s piano rehearsal. Only occasionally do the soloists also attend this rehearsal, so we were surprised to see Hunt Lieberson and Shafer walk in as well. From the Chorus’s usual seats in the terrace (behind the Orchestra) during a performance, we don’t have a great vantage point to hear soloists; but for this rehearsal, they were facing us, just a few feet away.

Tilson Thomas started at the first chorus entrance, “Aufersteh’n.” The mezzo-soprano solo begins a few minutes later and when Hunt Lieberson stood, she didn’t just rehearse—she performed. She threw herself into the music with urgency and demanded our attention, even though the performance didn’t seem to be for us. It was immediate, raw, electric.

During the break, she sat alone, studying her score. I approached her, asked if I could say hello, and expressed how much I had admired her performance of the Neruda Songs. I inquired if the performances in Boston had been recorded, and we talked about the possibility that they would be released. And, of course, I said how much I was looking forward to the Mahler. Throughout, she was very gracious.

To say now that those performances were special is an understatement. The experience and privilege of having shared the stage with her will always remain.

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Christoph Eschenbach (Scott Kohn photo)

Christoph Eschenbach (Scott Kohn photo)

To coincide with the Ravinia Festival’s sixtieth season, along with an $11.5 million renovation of the pavilion and grounds, executive director Zarin Mehta announced in September 1994 that Christoph Eschenbach would be the festival’s third music director beginning in the summer of 1995.

For his first concert on June 29, 1995, Eschenbach led the Orchestra in Rouse’s Phaethon, Bruch’s First Violin Concerto with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Regarding Mahler’s symphony, John von Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “It was a highly individual interpretation, to be sure, but Eschenbach has the command, the control, to make our band share his convictions and carry out his ideas all the way.” In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma added, “The audience was on its feet seconds after the Mahler ended, cheering and applauding, sending up waves of still louder cheers as Eschenbach motioned to CSO principals and soloists, especially brass and woodwinds, to take their bows.”

Eschenbach’s extensive history with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra began on January 30, 31, and February 1, 1969, when he made his debut as piano soloist at Orchestra Hall in the U.S. premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Piano Concerto no. 2 with the composer conducting.

Eschenbach leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival (photo courtesy of the Ravinia Festival)

Eschenbach leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival (photo courtesy of the Ravinia Festival)

At the Ravinia Festival, he first appeared with the Orchestra as soloist in Schumann’s Piano Concerto on July 25, 1973, with Riccardo Muti—in his debut with the Orchestra—conducting.

He first conducted the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival on August 3, 1978, leading Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto (from the keyboard) and Third Symphony. For his conducting debut in Orchestra Hall, he led Mahler’s Sixth Symphony on December 20, 21, and 22, 1990.

Eschenbach served the Ravinia Festival through the 2003 summer season. He gave his final concerts as music director with the Orchestra on August 10, leading Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 (from the keyboard), Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2 (The Age of Anxiety) with pianist Christopher Taylor, and Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Lang Lang.

This article also appears here.

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date (Dan Rest photo)

July 22, 2001 (Dan Rest photo)

On July 22, 2001, Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestra were scheduled to give a free outdoor concert beginning at 6:00 p.m. in Harrison Park in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. However, shortly after 5:00, strong wind gusts and torrential rain left the musicians waiting out the storm in the nearby Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum,* which had co-sponsored the daylong Plazas de México arts festival.

According to Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times, “At 6:10 p.m., as the wind subsided and the rain began to let up, Henry Fogel, the CSO’s rain-soaked president, announced that he was ‘willing to give it a try.’ The hardy audience members, many of them crowded under the museum’s sheltering eaves, began returning to the park, with their folding chairs, soggy blankets, and children in tow.”

Following a quick cleanup of the stage, Barenboim greeted the nearly 2,000-member audience and began the concert, barely an hour after it was scheduled to begin. He led the Orchestra in works by Latin American composers, including Carlos Gardel, José Pablo Mancayo, Mariano Mores, Astor Piazzolla, Silvestre Revueltas, Gerardo Matos Rodríguez, and Horacio Salgán (due to the delayed start, Ravel’s Boléro was omitted from the program).

The Orchestra’s music director “lived in Buenos Aires for the first decade of his life, and the infectious, syncopated rhythms and folk-inspired melodies of Latin music, especially the tango, are in his blood,” continued Delacoma. “Between pieces Sunday, Barenboim chatted easily with the audience in Spanish. This was not a program conjured out of nowhere simply to raise the CSO’s profile in Chicago’s Latin community. . . . The CSO wants residents of Pilsen—and every other Chicago neighborhood—to know that classical music isn’t the exclusive property of people who can afford the most expensive seats in Symphony Center. That message came through loud and clear Sunday.”

*The museum changed its name to the National Museum of Mexican Art in December 2006.

This article also appears here.

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Theodore Thomas

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