Two Operas in Five Days, Second One is the Charm


By luck of the schedule, I had two Lyric operas this week, Puccini’s Tosca last Tuesday and Gounod’s Faust last night. That’s about six-and-a-half hours of opera, my limit for any given week. I enjoyed them both, despite having seen each of these productions before, but I much preferred Faust.

I think I may have seen the final performance of this run of Tosca (there are six performances in January with different leads) which might explain why some of the singing seemed overpowered by the orchestra. James Morris (Scarpia) is always a commanding presence on stage and fun to watch. Deborah Voigt has a lovely voice but she’s not a performer whom I really connect with. Her acting seemed a bit stilted, especially anytime she had to move more than three steps in any direction on stage.

This is the nearly 50-year-old Zeffirelli production and in my humble opinion, a prime example of enough is enough when it comes to Lyric trotting out the old tried-and-true audience favorites. Give us something new to look at! I realize you should be careful what you wish for but when it’s an opera so often in the rotation, they should really reward long-time subscribers, not punish them with the same old thing.

Faust is also a production I’ve seen before, but only once and the performances here were so good I didn’t mind. I’d forgotten how much I liked this opera. The music is beautiful, the staging effective and though the three leads carry much of the story, there’s enough going on (including the use of a large chorus) to keep it from ever getting dull.

Piotr Beczala (Faust), René Pape (Mephistopheles), and Ana María Martínez (Marguerite) played well off one another, excellent singers and actors all, especially Martinez who convincingly portrayed the gamut of Marguerite, from innocent love-struck young girl to a woman fallen from grace and out of her mind. This opera has something for everyone (a little dancing, a little comedy, swordplay, the devil, beautiful music, exhilarating choral segments, romance, beautiful sets, and a riveting story that moves along so you hardly notice the three-and-a-half hour running time.

Out With Wrigley Field and In With Orchestra Hall: Changing Venues With the Changing of the Seasons

Exchanging Wrigley Field and baseball with Orchestra Hall, the CSO and Lyric Opera–a sure sign that winter is coming.

Tonight’s program was a great way to kick off my classical music season. Joshua Bell performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1; about as close as I’ll ever come to really liking a piece centered around solo violin. The highlight of the concert for me was the second piece of the night, Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 (Organ). Wow, is this ever a jolt of energy and a real crowd pleaser. It’s got everything: a full orchestra, crashing cymbals, four hands at the piano, rousing brass, and of course the full-on pipe organ that you feel as well as hear. (That’s organist Henry McDowell in the photo warming up before the concert.)

You’ve probably heard the Organ Symphony even if you’re not familiar with it by name; portions of his have been used in TV and movies. It’s lush and jolting and full of repeating layers. Very cinematic, which I love. To hear it live was a truly thrilling way to kick off my season.

A Shostakovich Opera In My Future!

Catching up on my blog reading, I came across some good news from Chicago Opera Theater–the audience choice has been announced and the winner is Shostakovich’s 1959 opera Moscow Cheryomuschki! The bad news is we have to wait until 2011 to see it. Sigh.

This past spring, during their most recent season, COT had a very clever fundraising effort going on that allowed audience members to choose the third production in their 2011 season. Choices were Capriccio (Strauss), The Magic Flute (Mozart) and the Shostakovich; one dollar, one vote.

My first reaction was, “God no, not The Magic Flute again!” I was ready to stuff the voting box with dollar bills just to avoid another production of Flute, one of my least favorite operas of all time. When I saw that Shostakovich was one of the alternatives, I happily placed multiple votes over the course of my three visits to COT this year. (I’ve already seen Capriccio at Lyric, and Strauss, well, I can take it or leave it.)

Had I ever heard of Moscow Cheryomuschki before? Nope, but attending multiple performances of CSO’s Shostakovich Festival back in ’99 made me a Shostakovich fan and I knew that an opera by the composer would be a must see.

Backstage at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Yesterday I took a backstage tour of the CSO. It lasted about an hour and took us on, over, behind, and under the stage.


This is a view of the stage from the box seats, a section of the hall I’ll probably never sit in again. ($$$$) The roped off area front and center on the stage marks off the elevator in the floor that’s used to raise and lower the grand piano to and from the stage. The highlight of the tour was riding the lift down from the stage.


This is a crummy shot of another tour group taking the elevator down. If you’ve ever been to a performance where the piano is removed halfway through the evening, you’ve seen the stage hands push the piano to the square in the floor that lowers while a yellow light flashes. Once down below, metal doors open onto an underground storage area with parking places enough for the three grand pianos the CSO has in rotation. Visiting performers are given their choice of instrument to use. The pipe organ is also stored there and moved to the stage in the same way.

The basement of the building contains the dressing rooms for orchestra members, including private rooms for the first violinist and first cellist. The conductor also has a suite of rooms, which seriously, has all the charm of a college common area. There are practice rooms, offices, archives and quiet rooms, where members of the orchestra can go to meditate, read, catnap, whatever, as well as a lounge with computers and a pool table. Apparently CSO members are big pool players and a table is made available for them whenever they’re on the road. None of this were we able to see.

We climbed out of the basement using a stairway used by the orchestra to get to the stage. You could tell because all the handrails were rapped in foam, all the better to protect your 200-year-old violin on your way to the stage. Things were loud directly behind the stage (which is about the space of a wide hallway and curved to follow the shape of the stage wall) as men were unloading crates of music stands and equipment, the CSO havng just returned from a tour in NYC.


The view from the stage is quite spectacular. It somehow feels smaller and larger at the same time. The hosue seats seem much closer and shallower in depth than it feels when your sitting in them–except for seats in the gallery. Just as it feels like you’ll topple out of your seat and onto the stage if you lean too far forward when you’re sitting up in the nosebleed section (the slope is very steep), when you look up from the stage, it appears as if the gallery section is nearly at a vertical and ready to fall forward.

The acoustics are notable when you’re on the stage and it’s hard to believe they can fit over 100 people in that space. The pipes from the original organ are still on the back wall but they’re no longer used. The organ was rebuilt a number of years ago and the 3,000 pipes are concealed behind thin walls next to and above the original pipes.


The “artwork” over the stage that serves to bounce and distribute the sound from the stage out to the audience looks light and airy. We were told it actually weighs seven tons.


Next we were taken into terrace, the section of seats directly behind the orchestra. This is a section I’ve always wanted to sit in since you’re facing the conductor during the performance. (You’re also in full view of the audience, so everyone will see when you’ve nodded off. I was  was entertained through the entire first half of a performance by the continually bobbing heads of an elderly couple sitting in the front row of the terrace.)


This is also where the chorus sits when they perform. The view of the entire room is terrific from here.


Our final stop on the tour was the box seats. While this is a kind of glamorous, movie set place to sit, with a good view and wide comfortable seats, the low overhang of the ceiling probably doesn’t do wonders for the sound.


The boxes are narrow, like walking through a railway car, but plush, with comfy red velvet chairs, each with its own arm rests! There are eight seats to a box, two per row with each seat slightly taller than the ones in front to give everyone a good sight-line. Since seats aren’t assigned, there’s an etiquette to sitting in the boxes, with folks in the front switching with those in the back at intermission so everyone has a chance at the good spots. Who knew.



Speaking of music marathons, I’ll be spending a fair portion of my weekend at the Harris Theater this weekend, enjoying not one but two productions by Chicago Opera Theater. Rescheduling from vacation landed me with back-to-back Mozart (La Clemenza di Tito) and Bizet (La Tragedie de Carmen). I’ve never seen the Mozart work before. Carmen I’ve seen a couple of times, but no matter, it’s sure to be great. COT productions are as much about the theatricality as they’re about the music. Their tagline isn’t “opera less ordinary” for nothing.

BTW, COT scored big for their 2010 season. When the renewal notice came in the mail a few weeks ago, I was thrilled to see that Frederica von Stade (one of my all time favorite performers) will be starring in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers. Now that she’s no longer a regular on the opera circuit, it will be a real treat to see her next May.

CSO 2 Nite

NaBloPoMo, Day 12

I kicked off my season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last week with a program of Handel, Mozart, Hummel and Purcell. The music was pleasant enough, nothing that really blew me out of my seat. Nicholas McGegan conducted and he was a lot of fun to watch, bouncing and swaying like an excited kid at the podium. We sat on the main floor, under the overhang, which I think noticeably dampened the sound.

I prefer our seats up in the first balcony, which I can afford for the Afterworks Masterworks series because it’s a budget series; shorter programs, earlier start times, no intermission. A perfect amount of music to end the day. The gimmick is to draw folks who work downtown into Symphony Hall to listen to classical music while they avoid the rush hour madness. Unfortunately for me, that means fighting the rush hour madness to get into the city in time to make the show. Totally worth it though. This is my third season subscribing to the series.

Tonight’s program is “Echoes of Russia”: Rachmaninov’s 3rd symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. Listening to the latter (hit the link on this page for a sample), it’s going to be hard not to hear “Some of the world’s greatest music was written by the great masters…” narrating in my head as the pianist bangs away at the keyboard.

CSO Season Ends

In April, I closed out my Chicago Symphony Orchestra 2007-08 season with a couple of great concerts. The first was a night of choral music that was doubly special because of the performers and the venue.

The Choir of King’s College stopped in Chicago as part of their North American tour. I love choral music and have many King’s College albums, so when I saw they were going to be in town performing, I made sure to get tickets. I’ve seen the 300-plus CSO chorus many times but this was my first time hearing a smaller choral group perform. It’s amazing how such a rich sound can come from just 30 voices. Undoubtedly the venue contributed. The concert was held in the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue. I’ve walked past this Gothic style cathedral, located directly across the street from the Hancock Tower, many times. The King’s College Choir was the perfect excuse to finally see what it looks like on the inside.

I was unfamiliar with the pieces performed by the choir and I can’t say I’ll be rushing out to add them to my collection, but it was well worth seeing them perform live. Listening on CD for so many years, I’d forgotten that the group is made up of boys—half are in college, the others are grade-school age, some as young as nine. It was fun watching the younger set. In the cathedral setting, they looked like a group of Hogwarts’ students. Imagine a few rows of Ron Weasley’s in black robes.

My final CSO concert of the year was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who led the orchestra in a performance of his own Piano Concerto, with soloist Yefim Bronfman (for whom the piece was written) and concluded with Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. A very fine way to round out the season.

Change Isn’t Always Good

Anyone who knows me well can tell you I don’t like change.

This applies to the radio as well as anything else. When they mess with my radio stations I get really ticked off. I was depressed for months after WNIB (the better of two classical music stations in Chicago) folded. Not only did I miss a great music station, I missed my radio friends (bring back Obie Yadgar!) I’ve since turned to internet radio to get my classical fix–a poor substitute indeed, but preferable to stuffy, boring WFMT.

I get attached to the voices that speak to me at the beginning and the end of the day. I mourned the loss of Performance Today, an NPR program hosted by Martin Goldsmith and broadcast in Chicago not on the NPR station but on classical station WNIB. When WNIB went, so went this fine show which had become an evening ritual for me. When David Brancaccio left as the host of NPR’s Marketplace, I was bummed as well. The difference in both these cases was that these hosts chose to leave. They moved on and so could I, I guessed.

This week I learned that another radio “friend” will soon be going, but not by choice. Bob Edwards, the long-time host of NPR’s news program Morning Edition, has been unceremoniously shown the door. I think it’s an incredibly stupid move on the part of management–no doubt a lame attempt to get younger blood on the air and in the audience, not to mention incredibly stupid timing to announce it when Chicago is pitching for more money.

Linda Ellerbee stated it very well in her editorial. Ellerbee raises some bigger issues connected to Edward’s replacement. Let’s hope this isn’t the first in a wave of changes geared at gaining the MTV-generation at the expense of baby boomers who value NPR as it is now.

I still can’t believe that come May 1st, Bob Edward’s voice will not be the one that eases me into the day. I predict another mourning period of radio depression lasting longer than my post-WNIB funk. Yes, in the grander scheme of things, this isn’t life shattering. As with all change, eventually I’ll adapt. But like most change, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.