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The best of Chicago classical | 2011 in review

Change? Econonic innovation? Hey, at least it happened in the world of classical in 2011.
Photograph: Todd Rosenberg Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts violinist Leila Josefowicz in Salonen's Violin Concerto, a CSO co-commission.
By Mia Clarke |

In 2011, change surged through the classical community. First, the big opera bombshells. Chicago Opera Theater general director Brian Dickie is returning home to England. The Lyric appointed Anthony Freud as general director, following the retirement of long-standing ringleader William Mason. Chicago Sinfonietta also rolled with the punches. Mei-Ann Chen replaced Paul Freeman on the podium this September with charm and confidence. She created a cool astronomical program in collaboration with the Adler Planetarium’s José Francisco Salgado. New kids on the block Haymarket Opera Company and Nu Directions Chamber Brass launched inspiring inaugural seasons.

Riccardo Muti bounced back from health-related cancellations early this year—brought on by multiple facial and jaw fractures after a fainting spell in February. The CSO director kicked up a storm with a season that included powerful performances of Verdi’s Otello, Schumann’s Cello Concerto (with his chum Yo-Yo Ma) and a unique re-creation of the final concert Mahler conducted, in 1911.

A number of guest conductors also brought the goods to Symphony Center. Bernard Haitink’s sublime direction of Handel’s Creation was bold and buoyant, and the estimable Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to Chicago with violinist Leila Josefowicz for a blistering premiere of his own Violin Concerto, written especially for her.

Peter Sellars again proved himself as a top opera director. The spiky-haired star returned to Lyric to conceive a contemporary, profound production of Handel’s Hercules that stood out in a season of more traditional operas. Late in the year, Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto shone in the title role of a beautifully austere staging of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

Despite operating on a budget that is less than five percent of the Lyric’s, Chicago Opera Theater pulled off three dynamic productions: Tod Machover’s thought-provoking Death and the Powers; a sleek, sophisticated Medea; and a dramatic, multimedia production of song cycles by Janacek and Schumann that centered on obsessive love. The simple, lovely projections by local artist Hillary Leben proved that, though cost cutting blows, it can inspire innovation and a bit of risk taking.

Local pianist George Lepauw’s Beethoven Festival was the unexpected smash of the season. Housed in a Pilsen warehouse over five days in September, the interdisciplinary fest showcased music, art, lectures and film inspired by the German giant. Lepauw’s dream paid off, with hordes of Chicago-area and guest musicians gathering for heartfelt performances in a laid-back setting. The event was hard evidence of the sense of community among our city’s young musicians. More important, it was proof that classical can be performed in radical environments and be inclusive, inviting and exciting to all.

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