Saturday 3 p.m. ~ Big Stone Things

Big old head

I visited the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park yesterday to see the exhibit Visible Language, which included the earliest example of cuneiform writing (from 3200 BC Mesopotamia) and Egyptian examples from 3300 BC. Very interesting.

The trip was a good excuse to visit some old friends, like the impressive two-story high fellow above. This museum is one of my favorites, filled with great old stuff and big stone things. It's quiet, rarely crowded, and has an old-school museum vibe that I like.

Afterward, I took a spin through the fantastic book stores nearby, the Seminary Co-Op and its sister store 57th Street Books, my favorite book shop in the city. I found a book I've been looking for that's not available in my library, Goat Song by Brad Kessler (whose book Birds in Fall I loved) about a year spent on his goat farm) as well as a nice copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans–a classic I've long wanted to read.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Berlioz Spectacular!

Feet First | 21

Kicked off another symphony season this evening with a program of all Berlioz. The first half was spectacular. Riccardo Muti conducting the Symphonie Fantastique, which was exactly that, fantastic. There was a little something for everyone in the orchestra on this one, including a really effective back-and-forth between the giant chimes (played off stage) and the brass.

Muti is extremely expressive and a lot of fun to watch. He conducts with his entire body, leaping, jabbing, hopping, leaning in to the orchestra and then away, punctuating the air with his arms up high, down low and sweeping the length of his body. At one point he simply stopped completely and turned his attention to the violins on his left, seeming to let them carry on on their own, as if listening and enjoying with the rest of us. I'd never seen that before.

The second half, Berlioz Lelio, was less enjoyable personally though I do give the CSO extra points for dramatic staging. Surprise guest Gerard Depardieu was on hand (a surprise to me because I had no idea he'd be there) to narrate the piece in French. The orchestra and chorus performed behind a giant black scrim, lit as if by candlelight from the lights on their music stands and scores. It looked great and the music was beautiful, but I could have done without the narration.

Chicago Opera Theater’s Take on Mother’s Day is a Winner

Chicago Opera Theater finishes their excellent 2010 season off with a fantastic production of Three Decembers, starring none-other-than Frederica von Stade. If you're like me, and have missed von Stade since she left the opera circuit, it's a real treat to catch the mezzo-soprano in her final performances before officially retiring. Her voice has long been one of my favorites and she's still got it.

Three Decembers is about the relationship of two grown children, Bea and Charlie, to their mother Madeline, a famous actress whom they believe loved the theater more than her family. This one-act opera, by Jake Hegge  based on a play by Terrence McNally, is only ninety minutes long, set in three different years, over three different decades. The music is quite accessible, not always true with modern operas. Some of the songs are particularly lovely, especially the duet between Bea and Charlie as they try to conjure up memories of their long-dead father, and "The Moon's Lullaby," sung by Madeline. "Shoes Duet" was another highlight, where Bea and Charlie sing about their mother's obsession with buying shoes as a cure-all for life's troubles.

All three performers were very strong in voice and acting chops. Individually, each has a moment to shine and they were magic together when singing the trios. The simple story was given spare yet effective staging, with darkness and spotlight illustrating the emotional void between mother and children as well as the theater stage, where Madeline is most comfortable. The small orchestra, dramatically lit, appears directly on stage.

Whether you're looking for the perfect introduction to Chicago Opera Theater (one of Chicago's cultural gems), or you're a fan of the always amazing Frederica von Stade, or you're simply interested in a winning night of theater, I couldn't recommend Three Decembers any higher. But don't delay, there are only three performances remaining.

CSO Tales From Tchaikovsky

CsoredmoonIf you’re looking for something festive to do this weekend–well as festive as listening to music from a pair of tragic love stories can be–I’d suggest the Tales from Tchaikovsky program the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is running through the weekend.

I saw it last night as part of my Afterworks Masterworks series and was pleasantly surprised to see it was in collaboration with Redmoon Theater. Incidental music from the The Snow Maiden included narration which greatly added to the emotional impact of the music.

The second work was Swan Lake, which, beautiful as it is, has become so cliche in my mind that I thought I never needed to hear it again. Wrong. Hearing it live was quite amazing. In addition, Redmoom has created a shadowplay presentation using overhead projectors and paper cutouts to dramatize the story with cinematic touches reminiscent of silent film. Two teams of puppeteers on either side of the stage and behind the orchestra, worked in time with the music. A large screen over the stage used video cameras trained on each projector’s screen to combine the images in real-time. It was a unique and entertaining way to tell the story.

Two Operas in Five Days, Second One is the Charm

Tosca
Faust

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.

One & Other: Fourth Plinth Highlights From Week #1 (#oneandother)

The first week of live art on the plinth is history, fourteen more to go. Throughout the week and during many a late night when I should have been in bed (like right now) I’ve been watching the live feed for One & Other, streaming 24/7 from Trafalgar Square.

Here are my favorites from the first week. All past “performances” are archived on the One & Other website and you can follow any of the links to catch the rerun. (Though there’s nothing quite like watching it live.)

Amanda (Day 4) — Used her hour to construct a sculpture of Antony Gormley out of bread.

Mimiloo (Day 5)Donned wings and threw fairy cakes down to the crowd below. They were eating it up.

Dianne (Day 5) — I’ve never been a fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show but this woman had the largest crowd I’ve seen yet joining her in doing “The Time Warp.” Sound system, head mic, and much enthusiasm–an A for effort. A band of Friday night partiers dressed in sarapis and Mexican hats wandered in, reminding us all that for the next three months, the plinth will be ground zero for drunken revelry in London.

Sina (Day 7) — The first of three great hours in a row began with this woman garbed in a black drape that completely covered the plinth (like a dementor, some commented.) A striking visual made even more so as the sun went down on the square.

Quangocrat (Day 7) — Who knew doing your expense report for work could be so entertaining.

Battychess (Day 7)Chess as social history lesson. This guy, a kids’ chess coach, captivated the live and online audience with personable banter, chess instruction, and the history behind the game while he first played a grandmaster on the phone and then a member of the audience in the square. Great fun.

Totally Geeking Out on the Plinth

All day today, if I was near a computer, I had one window tuned in to the plinth channel. I was late to work today because I just peeked in for a minute and was sucked in by a woman building a statue out of bread.

I find this whole thing quite fascinating.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve now tuned my Twitter account to follow folks commenting on the live feed (#oneandother) which provides another fascinating and thoroughly addictive element to the mix.

What Would You Do On the Top of a Plinth in Trafalgar Square for an Hour?

So have you heard about One & Other, the performance art piece (created by Antony Gormley) going on in London where a single person spends one hour on top of a statue base doing whatever they want? Over the course of 100 days, 2400 Britons will have their 60 minutes in the limelight. They wear a mic and are broadcast live on the internet. Some read aloud, others speachify, or chat with folks on the ground, talk on their cell phone, play a musical instrument.

I have yet to see any of the daytime slots, so when I’ve checked in, “performances” have been fascinatingly dull. One woman read Dr. Suess through a bullhorn, a guy sat and read aloud from a Penquin classic, and another woman wrote messages on a wipe board that were totally unintelligible from the webcam. (Tip to future “plinthers,” don’t hold stuff up to the camera for us to read unless the font is really really huge.)

The web coverage (streaming live 24/7) is actually quite good; images are clear, the cameras provide multiple angles and seem to respond to what’s going on (as opposed to the usual webcam that’s static and fuzzy.) The audio (when it’s on) is clear. I just watched a woman narrate her experience on the plinth as the sun came up over London while she wrote 12 postcards to send to folks around the globe. Boring and charming at the same time.

I’m kind of surprised by the lack of performance in most of the segments I’ve tuned in on. Where you’d think people would devise a way to entertain or use their allotted time to make a statement, plead a cause or be discovered, instead they’re exposing themselves in one of the most public ways possible while carrying out utterly personal and intimate activities (reading, writing, talking on the phone.) The guy on now is holding up a blown-up photo of his dear departed dad and answering questions about him from people walking by. It’s a strange juxtaposition and interesting to see what people come up with, fulfilling the artist’s wildest dreams of “the democratization of art.”

Which leads me to this question: If you were one of the 2400 plinthers (randomly chosen from over 22,000 applicants), what would you do for your hour?

(photo by ericsnaps’ from the One and Other photo pool on Flickr.)

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.