Thursday, May 15, 2008

Guide and Recommendations for Chicago's Summer Music

This was published in a vile, butchered form on Tuesday. The complete version is presented here.

It's a little inane, but it would have served its purpose.


Ravinia Festival

(Student Tickets!)

Ravinia is the oldest outdoor music festival in America, a fact they’re sure to mention on their website, in their literature, in their commercials, on their posters, and anywhere else they can slip it in. But their longevity is for a reason—Ravinia has consistently presented a veritable who’s-who of the music world in nearly every era of its existence. Since 1936, the festival has been the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and these days, some would say that Ravinia maestro James Conlon is a finer hand than the orchestra’s own director.

Many wax eloquent about Ravinia’s tradition of elaborate lawn picnics, where concert goers lounge around on the grass and hear the music over a state-of-the-art sound system. Lawn seats are always $10, but if what you care about is the music, it’s recommended you get reserved at either of Ravinia’s two near-ideal main venues. The Martin Theatre is very small, with only 850 seats, but regulars will tell you its “feel” is even smaller. The pavilion is a grand, open air setting that takes advantage of the summer air while still providing a more standard concert experience.

Best of all, college students may present their student IDs at Ravinia’s ticket office on the night of performances to get one of two cut rates: free admission to the lawn or $10 reserved seats in either of the two venues.

Metra runs a “Ravinia Special” on concert days, and while the trains are sometimes crowded, this is still recommended. It even runs out of Ogilvie Transportation Center, which means you can hop a train out of Elmhurst and then go straight out to the festival.

Don Giovanni

(August 15th7:00 PM, August 17th2:00 PM)

Ravinia’s marketing this one hard, and with good reason—to hear Mozart’s masterpiece in the intimate 850-seat Martin Theatre is truly unique opportunity, and with a cast this excellent, the show promises to be stunning. Most prominent is Samuel Ramey, who—though a famous Don Giovanni himself—will be assuming the comic role of the Don’s servant, Leporello. As one of opera’s elder statesmen, any opportunity to hear Mr. Ramey is worth taking, and it seems likely that this will be one of our last occasions to hear the great lion roar. As the Don, we have Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, whose dark, gleaming bass-baritone is one of the most elegant and admired on the opera scene today. He’s also quite the handsome devil and very good actor—his Don promises to be a charming, masculine, and malevolent rake much in the tradition of the great Cesare Siepi. And the rest of the lineup is rife with luxury casting, standouts including Heidi Grant Murphy as Zerlina, Soila Ilkoski as Donna Elvira, and Morris Robinson as Il Commendatore.

But it doesn’t stop there. Our own, legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be in the pit, something that only happens a few times every decade. The admired, 140-year-old Apollo Chorus will also be featured. And of course, veteran Maestro James Conlon will be on the podium, likely turning in a performance that will be far more than the sum of its many impressive parts.

Reserved theatre seats are pricey, set at $75. But if there is one show you should see this summer, this is it. Truly extraordinary by any standard.

Beaux Arts Trio

(August 18th - 8:00 PM; August 19th8PM)

The last 12 months have been a time for many farewells in the music world, but the loss of the Beaux Arts Trio will perhaps be the most lamentable. For over 50 years, this ensemble’s various incarnations have consistently set the standard for their type, turning in performances of remarkable technique, poetry, and power. As part of their farewell tour, this performance will literally be in their last month of existence, promising Beethoven’s B-flat major “Archduke” trio and Schubert’s E-flat major trio. Both works are among the masterpieces of the genre, and both composers are particular specialties of the ensemble—rarely has this music been played with such virile nobility as by these gentlemen. They are still likely the very best in the world, and this is the very last time we may hear them.

Like most Ravinia chamber music concerts, this program will be in the Martin Theatre. Reserved seats range from $30-$50.

Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand

(July 26th7:30 PM)

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand is rarely performed, and even more rarely performed well. The work is traditionally done with a staggering number of musicians—hence the name—and while you probably won’t see 1000 performers on the stage, the several hundred that will be involved should be more than adequate to knock your socks off. James Conlon is well known as a Mahler conductor and his relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a consistently fruitful one. The orchestra itself is perfectly suited to a huge work like this, possessing not only the world’s greatest brass section, but perhaps the world’s largest and most powerful orchestral sound. And they too are known for their Mahler, a reputation which extends all the way back to the orchestra’s years under Fritz Reiner in the 50’s.

Included in the massive, combined forces of several choruses will also be the Chicago Symphony Chorus, which, like the orchestra, is considered one of the world’s very best and just happens to include some Elmhurst College faculty. The lineup of soloists is also very good, standouts including soprano Christine Brewer, soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, and bass John Relyea.

Reserved seats range from $30-$75.

An Evening of Beethoven (Budget Recommendation)

(July 30th8:00 PM)

Ludwig van Beethoven and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—need more be said? This promises to be a feast for the heroically inclined, with a program including both of Beethoven’s “Napoleonic” works: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) and Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). The ever-popular Fidelio Overture is also thrown in for good measure.

Sir Andrew Davis will be conducting and should lead the orchestra in fine, serviceable performances. But even more importantly, American pianist Leon Fleisher is slated to play the concerto. Mr. Fleisher is best known for his medical miracle story, in which botox injections restored the use of his right hand after 40 years of crippling focal dystonia. He’s around 80 now, but his playing is still remarkable, boasting a formidable technique and a broad palette of clear, singing colors. His now-legendary cycle of Beethoven piano concertos places him at the absolute forefront of interpreters in this repertoire—hearing him play should be something really special.

Best of all, this is a “Full House” concert, which means the usual range of ticket prices has been slashed to a flat $25 for all reserved seats.

Grant Park Music Festival

(It’s free!)

One of Chicago’s most admirable traditions, the Grant Park Music Festival has been providing free, high quality classical concerts every summer since 1935. In fact, it claims to be the only free, outdoor classical music festival in the country. But even if this weren’t the case, the festival offers something unique—where else can you hear music at this level with a Lake Michigan Breeze on your face and the sounds of evening traffic screaming in the distance? Best of all, Grant Park is right in the heart of downtown and lends itself perfectly to unplanned jaunts.

The resident Grant Park Orchestra is quite respectable and has been developing nicely for some years. Current music director Carlos Kalmar consistently programs an interesting mix of standard repertoire and weird, experimental fare, and this summer seems no exception.

It’s recommended you arrive early enough to sit in the fixed seats close to the stage, but if you decide to sit on the grass, the Pritzker Pavilion’s sound system offers a reasonable listening experience.

Grant Park’s pretty easy to get to—just find Michigan Avenue. There are four parking garages nearby, but if you prefer public transportation, both Metra and CTA should get you there fine.

Act I, Wagner’s Die Walküre

(August 13th6:30 PM)

So, ever heard Wagner outdoors? Not likely. Even aside from the particular performers, the exceptional premise of this concert makes it worth attending. Act I of Die Walküre is considered by many to be the very highest point of the entire Ring cycle, having a long history of excellent performances outside of the complete opera. As such, it is the most logical vehicle for so welcome an experiment.

But it gets better—music director Carlos Kalmar has somehow pulled together a real top notch set of principals. Cavernous bass Kristinn Sigmundsson will take on the role of the villainous Hunding. As Sieglinde, Nancy Gustafson is the name Grant Park’s pushing for this show—and she’s an excellent singer, no doubt about it—but it’s Torsten Kerl as Siegmund that’s the interesting name here. Dedicated Wagnerians are wondering if he’ll grow into the next great heldentenor, and with good reason—his Germanic voice is focused, bright, youthful, and metallic, slightly reminiscent of our other contemporary almost-heldentenor, Ben Heppner. In fact, the famous Mr. Heppner’s voice is just a little less focused, and a little less “helden” by comparison. True judgment must of course be reserved until Mr. Kerl may be heard live, but what can be heard on his various recordings is downright exciting.

Definitely the most interesting of Grant Park’s concerts this summer and definitely worth your evening.

Pinchas Zukerman

(July 13th7:30 PM)

Grant Park’s usual approach is to hire solid, respectable-but-not-famous musicians, but every once in a while they’ll feature someone well known. In this case, 2008 happens to be the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, so they up and collaborated with the Jewish United Fund to get themselves a famous Jewish performer—violinist-conductor Pinchas Zukerman. Zukerman’s the sort of fellow who’s always being nominated for Grammy awards but rarely wins them—in other words, a very high level musician whose excellence is very much a matter of taste. Objectively speaking, he has a rich, full tone and possesses a respectably virtuosic technique. And earlier this year, he was the musician entrusted with the first-performance-in-70-years on the world’s most expensive violin, a $3.9 million Guarneri owned by Russian businessman Maxim Viktorov.

In any case, Mr. Zukerman is well worth hearing, both as violinist and conductor. The program will include Bach’s D-minor Concerto for Two Violins (where he will be joined by concertmaster Jeremy Black), Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture.