2019 in Review: Classical Music

Yo-Yo Ma gave the year's best concert in Grant Park. Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography. Yo-Yo Ma gave the year's best concert, at Pritzker Pavilion in Grant Park. Todd Rosenberg Photography. As the year and the decade are winding down, it is hard to avoid thinking about the time that has passed. In this day and age, when events swirl around and unpleasantries and challenges abound, it is easy to get mentally lost in the maelstrom. To this reviewer, music has always been a way to find joy and comfort in times of trouble. Luckily, Chicago’s robust classical musical scene continued to deliver excellence in 2019. Third Coast Percussion joined Civic Orchestra of Chicago, led by Ken-David Masur, for a world premiere of Christopher Cerrone's concerto. Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography. The year started with two great concerts by the Dover and Jupiter String Quartets at the Northwestern Winter Chamber Music festival in Evanston. Last spring, Itzhak Perlman and Evgeny Kissin marked the end of the CSO musicians’ strike with a delightful performance of Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven at Symphony Center. That venue also hosted Third Coast Percussion and the Chicago Civic Orchestra, conducted by Ken-David Masur, for the world premiere of a new concerto by Christopher Cerrone. The Naperville Chamber Players performed at Impromptu Fest 2019 in the new Guarneri Hall. Photo by Amy Wurtz. In March, the Impromptu Fest 2019 offered a series of concerts that showcased Chicago’s rich and vibrant contemporary art music scene at the new Guarneri Hall in the Loop. Last summer the Thirsty Ears Classical Music Street Festival entertained on Wilson between Hermitage and Ravenswood. Moving indoors, pianist Huiping Cai and the Hessler Duo offered youthful potential at the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert series at the Chicago Cultural Center. Robert Chen and Matthew Hagle gave a wonderful performance in Evanston. Photos by Todd Rosenberg and Mike Canale. In early October, the Music Institute of Chicago hosted CSO concertmaster Robert Chen and MIC pianist Matthew Hagle for a lovely afternoon of music for violin and piano at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston. At the Harris Theater, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented Immortal Schubert and the annual Yuletide performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos. In early December, the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition offered the Grossman Ensemble in a delightful performance of world premieres at Logan Center in Hyde Park. On the recording front, Cedille Records celebrated its 30th anniversary with its annual fundraising Soirée in September and several remarkable CDs highlighting Chicago artists. These included a recording of guitarist Sharon Isbin and Pacifica Quartet playing several works on Souvenirs of Spain & Italy. On Winged Creatures, Chicago natives Demarre and Anthony McGill joined the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Allen Tinkham, for several excellent pieces, new and old, for flute, clarinet, and orchestra. In Ascent, violist and Chicago native Matthew Lipman offered his premiere solo recording, backed up by pianist Henry Kramer. Project W featured the Chicago Sinfonietta, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen, celebrating Women composers. On Fields, Third Coast Percussion teamed up with British pop artist, producer, and composer Devonté Hynes to create a magical disc of rhythmic melodies for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. The Grossman Ensemble gave a great performance in early December. Photo by Jean Lachat. Notwithstanding all the enjoyable moments in 2019, one performance stands out above all else: Yo-Yo Ma’s straight run-through of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Suites for solo cello at the Pritzker Pavilion in Grant Park on June 20. This was part of The Bach Project, Ma’s latest community outreach effort where he takes music and education into schools, hospitals, and other venues. On the following day, as part of the Make Music Chicago celebration of the summer solstice, Ma appeared in several locations around the city, culminating with a performance with the Civic Orchestra of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G-major at the western end of the Riverwalk. Yo-Yo Ma was part of Make Music Chicago with the Civic Orchestra. Photo by Louis Harris. Yo-Yo Ma joined the Civic Orchestra of Chicago on the Riverwalk as part of Make Music Chicago. Photo by Louis Harris. In thinking of the decade’s end, one is struck by the fact that classical aficionados do not think in terms of decades, but in centuries and half centuries. New trends in music have conveniently started and ended near the beginning or right in the middle of centuries. Three years later, the Ear Taxi Festival still resonates. However, in reflecting on the four years that Third Coast Review has illuminated Chicago's arts and culture, one event has left a lasting impression: the Ear Taxi Festival. Spread out over six days in October 2016, the Ear Taxi Festival displayed the enormity of Chicago’s contemporary classical music scene. This included music by 88 local composers and 55 world premieres. Especially memorable was the Saturday night concert that culminated with the world premiere of Drew Baker’s NOX. This event demonstrated to the world that Chicago has a rich and deep contemporary classical scene. Three years later, the Ear Taxi Festival still resonates. Hoping you all have a wonderful new year and decade!  
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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.