This year, we had more reasons to throw roses than tomatoes.
The superb hire of Riccardo Muti as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new director reverberated both locally and internationally, making it the year’s biggest bit of classical-music news. As we anticipate the Italian maestro’s 2010 start, we look back at other notable moments from ’08.
High notes and low notes at Orchestra Hall
Chosen in November as America’s best orchestra by the U.K. magazine Gramophone, the CSO brilliantly bided time before Muti’s arrival with 79-year-old principal conductor Bernard Haitink, who did miraculous things with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 in early May. It’s a good thing the orchestra’s in-house label—the Grammy-nominated CSO Resound—is preserving this partnership with several hall-of-fame–quality releases. We hope it’ll do the same for November’s earth-shattering account of Mahler’s Second.
There were letdowns at Michigan and Adams, too: Longtime favorite Maurizio Pollini gave a piano recital that was at times sensational (the Beethoven), at other times seemingly scatterbrained (the Schumann and Chopin). Meanwhile, a South American–themed program titled “The Inca Trail,” a tacky travelogue targeted to symphony subscribers by conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, made for an exhausting sit. Fortunately, other guest conductors, such as Charles Dutoit, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Michael Tilson Thomas, continued to exploit the orchestra’s incredible versatility.
Curtain call at the Lyric Opera
Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky bowled us over in the titular role he essentially reinvented—Eugene Onegin. Despite losing cofounder Nicola Rescigno in August, the Lyric expertly staged two overdue masterpieces: Alban Berg’s wicked Lulu and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess—the latter never before seen at the Lyric.
In June, prolific Chicago label Cedille Records released an important collaboration we were lucky to catch live at the Ravinia Festival: Ursula Oppens playing the piano pieces of Elliott Carter (who turned 100 this year).
Venue of the year
Harris Theater burnished its reputation as a true countercultural and contemporary space. eighth blackbird nailed Steve Reich’s new work “Double Sextet,” and Fulcrum Point performed the Midwest premiere of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s “Popcorn Superhet Receiver.” Visiting conductor David Robertson brought his St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for a program as fresh as any we saw all year: works by Glenn Branca, Steven Mackey, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Frank Zappa. Also in the hall, Chicago Opera Theater and director Diane Paulus’s lasciviously entertaining production of Don Giovanni was easily the year’s sexiest romp.
Best new performance space
The Morse Theatre, a renovated 1912 Rogers Park nickelodeon, is already coaxing the area’s best classical-chamber talent into its warm, inviting interior.
Favorite chamber performances
The University of Chicago’s Messiaen Festival devoted ten enriching days to the Frenchman. The first extended music festival in the school’s history offered intimate encounters with the master’s birdsongs and exotic color. At the free Rush Hour concerts at St. James Episcopal Church, Fifth House Ensemble’s gorgeously controlled account of Brahms’s Clarinet Trio imbued the late work with the quietly competing voices and guarded pathos of which performances so often deprive it.
Biggest loss of the year
Studs Terkel may not be most remembered for his classical associations, but the former WFMT host was the genre’s tireless advocate. As he discussed in a 2005 interview with Air America Radio, Studs felt many working-class people mistakenly believed the art form was “beyond them,” but once exposed to it, they would often tell themselves, “I like this and am good enough for it.” In our anti-intellectual age, when Joe Six-Pack and Mary Master’s Degree are rarely one, the memory of Louis “Studs” Terkel makes us long for a dying breed. As the professed agnostic said, classical presents “the possibilities that we have for the better angels to take over.”