‘Tis the season for superlatives. Below are the best of the best in classical music and jazz’s broad orbit:
A “Tosca” for the ages: When considering this straightforward Puccini blockbuster, “thought-provoking” probably isn’t at the tippy-top of the adjectives list. But Lyric Opera’s revival of a 50-year-old Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production (March 12 to April 10) was endlessly textured and, yes, smart. In a remarkable role debut, Michelle Bradley’s Tosca was feisty and flawed, not a saintlike cardboard cutout, and baritone Fabián Veloz made even Scarpia utterly sympathetic. It was also the company’s most vocally sterling offering of the year; cinching tenor Russell Thomas in a lead role (Cavaradossi) always helps on that front.
Best trip around the sun: The Sun Ra Arkestra performs in Chicago, its origin city, every couple of years, but those visits become increasingly precious as bandleader Marshall Allen nears 100. (He turned 98 in May.) The cosmic jazz unit’s March 26 performances at Constellation, its first since the pandemic shutdown, were a veritable group prayer — one you could dance to, to boot. At one point, Allen ripped so hard on his sax that his dentures flew out into the crowd, and one attendee dove for them like a guitar pick at a Van Halen concert. That just about sums up my feelings.
Strongest symphonic program: There wasn’t a weak link to be found in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s March 31 and April 1 program, conducted by Riccardo Muti. It led with a new orchestral work by former CSO resident composer Missy Mazzoli, progressed through Mahler’s luscious “Rückert-Lieder,” featuring nonpareil mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, and ended with a shapely Bruckner 2.
Best belated local premiere: I can’t remember the last time I teared up at an orchestra concert, but Muti and the CSO’s gorgeous, worthy performance of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3 (May 5-7) elicited enough waterworks to inspire a Handel suite. If only Price, who died in 1953, could have been there herself.
Best Beethoven: The “Eroica” was the only work on the Grant Park Music Festival’s July 15-16 program that wasn’t new, and that symphony is hyper-familiar to classical fans. But revelations came fast and furious in guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s account of this most battle-scarred of war horses. Watching me jot in my notebook, at one point my seat neighbor grumbled to his wife: “The person next to me is going crazy.” He wasn’t wrong.
Grooviest night at Symphony Center: Chucho Valdés had reason to be in a retrospective mood at his Oct. 18 Symphony Center show: He’d just turned 81 and the evening’s marquee piece, “La Creación,” reflected his own lifelong spiritual preoccupations. But this was no solemn sermon: Valdés and his Yoruban Orchestra performed ecstatically, with Valdés sprinkling his signature quote-heavy improvisations throughout the entire set. Keep an eye out for 25-year-old percussion phenom Roberto Jr. Vizcaino, who quite literally stopped the show with an epic drum solo in “Creación.”
MVB (Most Valuable Band): Many thanks to the reader who emailed me with an imperative, not a request, to hear Chico Freeman (son of fellow tenor sax man Von, nephew of guitarist George) headline Jazz Showcase Oct. 27-30 with a gangbuster quintet: guitarist Mike Allemana, pianist Julius Tucker, bassist Christian Dillingham and drummer Kyle Swan. The icing on this multitiered cake was Swiss percussionist Reto Weber playing the Hang, a steel drumlike instrument.
Best guest conductor appearance: I’ve never been moved to go to the CSO twice in one concert cycle. That changed when Christian Thielemann came here Oct. 20-25, his first time conducting the CSO since 1995. He led what was, without question, the most eloquent Bruckner 8 I’ve heard, and one of the most polished CSO performances I’ve yet experienced.
But is a glorious one-off seriously enough to consider him a Muti successor, as some — The New York Times included — speculate? If you ask me, between Thielemann’s staid core repertoire and apparent divisiveness among CSO musicians, a Thielemann appointment would rank among the most chuckleheaded administrative decisions the institution has made in recent memory. A conductor is more than his worst night, but he’s also much more than his best (and not always flatteringly so).
But hey, if Thielemann comes back to conduct Bruckner, I’m there — maybe even more than once.
Best CSO guests, period: Comparisons between Thielemann and Kirill Petrenko are so 2015, when the latter beat out the former as a dark-horse successor to Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic. But when both lead two of the most stunning orchestral performances of the year within a month of one another, well, pardon me for going apple- and orange-picking. Petrenko’s Nov. 16 Mahler 7 with the Berliners was no less clean than Thielemann’s seductive, razor-edged Bruckner, but it was warmer, kinder, more curious. Let’s find someone like that.
Best 12 hours: Have you ever had one of those days that perfectly encapsulates what makes Chicago great, better than any breathless monologue or sappy social media post could? I’ve had a few, but Sept. 24-25 might take the cake.
It all started at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, with pianist Jim Baker’s afternoon solo set at the Logan Center for the Arts; if Scriabin could swing, maybe he’d get within spitting distance of that performance. Then, it’s off to a signing of Paul Steinbeck’s new book about the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, “Sound Experiments,” and a lecture by Mike Allemana on the late saxophonist Von Freeman. Afterward, an attendee tearfully takes to the mic to say he feels like he witnessed one of the best gigs of his life. (Co-signed.) From there, string trio Hear in Now and Ethiopian band Qwanqwa team up to play one of the best sets I’ve ever heard: grooves emerging inexorable and sweet, the musicians’ sheer joy catapulting the audience to whatever firmament they’re floating in.
I leave to make my way to DePaul’s Holtschneider Center in Lincoln Park, where Haymarket Opera is staging Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea.” Written in 1643, it’s one of the oldest operas still in the repertory; Haymarket faithfully presents productions as then-contemporary audiences would have experienced them, so it’s sure to be a treat.
But a mix-up at the box office means I actually have a ticket to new-music module Ensemble Dal Niente’s season opener: a trippy tribute to German composer Carola Bauckholt happening in the same building. It starts with Bauckholt’s “Vakuum Lieder” (2017), which tasks a vocalist with vacuuming her face, then her mouth, then a flaccid rubber balloon; the resulting partials aren’t too far-off from what you’d hear from a brass instrument. Balloons are evidently a fixation for Bauckholt, as two human-sized ones figure powerfully into her 2016 music theater piece “Oh, I See.” A ticket mix-up has never been so enthralling.
That said, there’s still plenty of time to catch the last act-and-a-half of “Poppea.” I do, just in time for the anti-heroes (the ever-wonderful Erica Schuller as Poppea and caramel-voiced Lindsay Metzger as Nerone) to sing “Pur ti miro” and live happily ever after.
I leave Holtschneider to a pitch-colored sky and enough rain to parch the Sahara, so I seek refuge inside Kingston Mines. Musically, it’s another happy accident: regulars Vance Kelly and his Backstreet Blues Band are on the southern stand, Omar Coleman’s band on the northern stand. Guesting with the latter is 21-year-old rising star Nick Alexander. His eyes are a candela or two too bright to believably sing about wasting away in county jail, but I guess that’s what you get when you’re a blues prodigy. Besides, his voice fits the part — lean, muscular, and with an edge like ripped jeans.
The evening is also a case study in the social mix one witnesses when a magnet blues venue is ensconced in Lincoln Park. On four different occasions, friendly patrons ask me what I’m reading — I’m still awkwardly toting that AACM book under my arm — including some older gentlemen with rough hands and butter-thick Midwestern accents. They kindly reward me with a beer and a book recommendation (Charles Shaar Murray’s “Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Post-War Rock ‘N’ Roll Revolution”). Later, though, I and others watch in horror as two drunk white women unknowingly barrel straight into Vance Kelly while thrashing around to his band. Other patrons promptly straighten them out.
I catch the last Brown Line home at a quarter to two, my eardrums full to bursting. Everything I’ve experienced feels extraordinary — but it isn’t, not really. It’s just another perfect day in Chicago.
Honorable mentions: Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 11 at the CSO (Feb. 17-19), CSO MusicNOW’s “Night of Song” (March 14), Folks Operetta’s “Die Kathrin” at the University of Chicago’s Korngold Festival (April 7-9), Adrian Dunn Singers’ “Emancipation” (April 29 and airing on PBS in February 2023), CSO MusicNOW’s “Concerto” (May 23) and Samara Joy at Jazz Showcase (Nov. 10-13).
Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.