Counting Down…Best of the Decade

What a decade it’s been! From graduating junior high in 2010, to graduating high school in 2014, to graduating college in 2018, and now in a PhD program (not sure how that’ll turn out)…I’ve definitely had quite the decade :D. But let me tell you, I never would have expected, in a million years, that I would have had all the experiences that I’ve gotten to have these past couple of years. Music has been an integral component of my decade, and since the end of 2019 marks the end of the decade, I thought I’d reflect on all that’s happened so far…with a special “Counting Down” edition! You can find my past posts here at these links ( 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015). I’ve also included some photos from the years, as well as some YouTube videos to help with some of the music references I make…hopefully it makes the post a little bit more lively than the usual blocks of text I write!

10. Mitsuko Uchida / Riccardo Muti: Beethoven Piano Concerto №3 (2017). While Mitsuko Uchida is most famous for her Mozart interpretations, her performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto №3 with the CSO and Maestro Muti remains, for me, one of the definitive highlights of all the concerts I’ve ever heard in Orchestra Hall. The rapport she had with the orchestra and with Maestro Muti, for that performance, was probably the closest and tightest that I’ve ever seen any soloist have here in Chicago. And her interpretation of the work was the perfect balance between the Classical and Romantic styles that this concerto represents in Beethoven’s own transitioning compositional methodologies. Ever since this concert, I’ve always looked forward to Uchida’s visits with the CSO, including an also memorable performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto №20, this past May.

9. Murray Perahia: 2012 / 2015 / 2017. In 2012, I was only a sophomore in high school (it feels like ages since then!). And it was in this year that I made my first trip to Orchestra Hall in Symphony Center, to hear, live, the brilliant pianist Murray Perahia. Growing up, I may not have been the most diligent nor serious of piano students, preferring to play basketball instead, but it was Murray Perahia’s artistry at the piano that was probably the key motivator for me to keep up with instrument. Every time I hear his recordings of the entire Mozart piano concerti w/ the English Chamber Orchestra or the Beethoven piano concerti w/ Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, or the Schubert Impromptus, I’m consistently blown away by his ability to bring out so much expression, sensitivity, and color into every note he plays. To hear him play live the famous “Moonlight” sonata (check out the video below) or the fiendishly difficult “Hammerklavier” sonata, makes me remember why I’ve always enjoyed listening to and playing the piano, as he exemplifies the art of piano to the highest level possible. To meet this humble, soft-spoken legend of the keyboard and also getting my score of Schubert’s Fantasie Impromptu and his & Radu Lupu’s recording of the piece signed by him was unforgettable! (It also was nice to have Lupu add his signature next to Perahia’s after his performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto №5 w/ Maestro Muti and the CSO 🙂 )

8. Muti Conducts Beethoven in the South Side (2016). I was just entering my junior year as an undergrad at UChicago, and so it was pretty cool to have Maestro Muti and the CSO come down to Woodlawn / Hyde Park neighborhoods to perform an all-Beethoven program (Leonore Overture №3 and Beethoven’s Symphony №5) for the annual community concert at the Apostolic Church of God. The church was only a 15 minute walk from my dorm, and so it was pretty cool being able to walk through the Woodlawn neighborhood and talk to some of the people who live there and are regular members of the church. The expansive hall of the church, of which its walls were adorned with these large doves, just made the atmosphere seem more special than usual. And to have the community from all over Chicago gathered in this one South Side church was an entirely refreshing experience, compared to the, sometimes, seemingly stuffy and routine concerts heard downtown. As a student at UChicago, and now at Northwestern, I don’t really get the chance to explore different parts and neighborhoods of the city, but hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to do so in the future because Chicago is an incredibly rich and diverse city, filled with so much culture, and I definitely want to immerse myself in everything the city has to offer! Speaking of Beethoven 5, this upcoming February will feature performances of the 2nd and 5th symphonies, as a continuation of this season’s Beethoven 250 celebrations…things to look forward to in 2020 😀

7. Salzburg Festival: Muti & the Vienna Philharmonic (2016). Ah, to be in Austria. Where Vienna is the land of Strauss waltzes, Sacher tortes, and Wiener schnitzel, its neighboring city of Salzburg happens to be the home of the Salzburger Festspiele (Salzburg Festival), arguably the most prestigious summer festival for classical music and opera. It was an absolutely wonderful experience being able to visit the festival for the very first time in 2016. To hear Maestro Muti, a regular at the Festival, conduct the storied Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic) in a concert of Strauss (Richard, not Johann) and Bruckner-in the famed Großes Festspielhaus-was purely emblematic of what the ideal Salzburg Festival experience should be (save for listening to a fully staged opera in the more historic Felsenreitschule). That still remains on my bucket list of things to do 🙂 Coincidentally though, the concert I attended was, in fact, Maestro Muti’s 250th concert at the Salzburg Festival! And in commemoration of that performance (in addition to Maestro Muti’s 75th birthday), Deutsche Grammophon released a live recording of that very concert. It was fun to be immersed in the full atmosphere of the festival, whether it was biking around Karajanplatz, walking under the very rocks that form the Felsenreitschule, or casually happening upon some of the biggest stars in classical music, this trip to Salzburg was, indeed, a high point of the decade!

6. Muti Conducts Schubert Mass №6 (2018). I’ve mostly known Schubert for his piano music, song cycles, and symphonies, and honestly had no idea that Schubert wrote so much sacred music, including six masses! And thus, for my last spring break of college, I brought my former piano teacher and some of my family to hear Maestro Muti conduct the last of the six masses, №6 in E-flat major. It was kind of apropos, as my former piano teacher is actually a practicing Catholic priest, and having him sort of explain the setting of the Mass, and the Latin meanings was super helpful in terms of getting a more meaningful experience out of hearing the piece. Actually though, you don’t really need to understand Latin or the meaning of the mass to hear the absolute beauty that is “Et incarnatus est” section of the Credo (although it definitely would augment your understanding if you were indeed acquainted with the text). It’s one of the most sublime pieces of music I’ve ever listened to live, starting from the initial melodic line of the celli to the two tenors’ voices interweaving with each other, or the entrance of the chorus that dramatically changes the mood from light to dark…an absolutely brilliant composition by Schubert.

5. Muti Conducts Rossini’s Stabat Mater / Cherubini’s Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn (2018). Two Italian vocal masterpieces were on the program for this performance: Rossini’s Stabat Mater and Cherubini’s Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn. With regards to the latter, it’s kind of unbelievable to think that Cherubini was one of the most well-known composers of his time (seriously, even Beethoven considered Cherubini as one of his greatest contemporaries), and yet, his works are not often performed today. Luckily, we have Maestro Muti to re-introduce these works into the mainstream performance arena, and I’m glad that he decided to program this rarity of Cherubini’s, which is truly a great work that deserves way more performances than it gets. And then, to conclude the evening with Rossini’s quasi-operatic Stabat Mater, featuring the well-known sections, “Cujus Animam” (tenor), “Inflammatus et accensus” (soprano), or my favorite, the quartetto of “Sancta mater, istud agas”, was just the perfect conclusion to the ‘17-’18 CSO season.

4. Muti Conducts Verdi’s Requiem (2018). The drama was fully alive and well in Orchestra Hall when Maestro Muti and the CSO performed Verdi’s famous Requiem Mass, in the fall of 2018. I missed the first two opportunities to hear Maestro Muti conduct this specialty of his in Chicago a couple years back, so I was super excited to finally get the opportunity to hear him conduct this work live. The concert began, however, with a somber moment, with Maestro Muti asking all of us in the audience to give a moment of silence for those who passed in the Thousand Oaks shooting. The idea that the Verdi Requiem asks and demands for peace for the dead, was fully put into context with this tragedy in mind. Perhaps that helped to set the mood for the performance, but there was no doubt that this performance of the Verdi Requiem was one that was to be filled with anger, passion, drama, and sadness-all of which are key characteristics of Verdi’s operas. There aren’t many times when one gets to hear all of this jam-packed into one singular concert, so when it does happen, all you can do is savor each and every second of it.

3. Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy (2019). So…I got to flip through the pages of the very first published edition of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, courtesy of Maestro Muti’s personal collection. If that doesn’t tell you how incredible this Academy experience was, then I’m not sure what will 🙂 Seriously speaking though, I learned so much in these two weeks (e.g. I probably would’ve never figured out thatthe opera was defined as a dramma giocoso or that there’s a Cherubino rhythmic motif running throughout the opera) and I definitely want to consolidate all the knowledge on this opera that I learned into one single written piece, after doing some more examination of the full libretto / plot / score on my own time. Hopefully I’ll get started on that soon…but for now, I think I’ll just continue to listen to the Act II finale, that of which I am now more and more convinced is the best piece of opera ever written.

2. Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy (2017). Just a couple of weeks before my senior year at UChicago had begun, I embarked on my first solo international trip abroad, spending two weeks in Ravenna to learn Verdi’s Aida from Maestro Muti! From learning about some of the performance history and (bad) traditions of Aida (Maestro Muti specifically cited the YouTube video as a resource, so I thought I’d include it below!), to the symbolism of the arabesque-like, melodic line of the oboe in Aida and Radames’ third act duet, to the extent to which Verdi himself influenced the sung libretto text, I couldn’t have asked for a more insightful and thought-provoking experience. Again, I am planning on consolidating everything I learned into a written paper, that of which I actually have started!…but not exactly finished yet. (I should probably get around to working on that…). But yeah, I went into this trip, not really knowing what exactly to expect, and I came out having the time of my life, not to mention, a surprise “Brava” from the Maestro 🙂

1. Muti Conducts Verdi’s Falstaff (2016). So…it was really hard for me to distinguish between items 1–3 on this list, but just ever so slightly edging out my two experiences at Maestro Muti’s Academy in Ravenna is the rehearsals/performances of Verdi’s Falstaff in Chicago in April of 2016. I think what makes this the most memorable part of the decade for me is the fact that it was the first time when I really got to experience the process through which an interpretation of an opera is actually constructed. To witness the rehearsal process and then to see the actual final performance be realized, was eye-opening and insightful, and is probably the main reason why I was so keen on being a part of Maestro Muti’s academies in the following years. Conducting Falstaff well is no small feat, and it requires an incredible degree of precision from each of the soloists and the orchestra that also does not interrupt the overall effervescent, quick-changing form and flow of the entire opera. Maestro Muti managed to keep all of this in check and balance, and I’ll never forget being in the front row and seeing, just for a quick moment, Maestro Muti singing together with Ambrogio Maestri, the definitive interpreter of Sir John today-he, too, was completely immersed in the opera, wringing out all that he could from each of the soloists and players on stage. It reminds me of a quote by the late soprano, Renata Tebaldi, during an old interview in the late 90s, when Maestro Muti was preparing some performances of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. While lamenting the state of Italian opera at La Scala, comparing it to the great golden age and grandeur of the former generation of singers and conductors, she notes that there was, indeed, a time when she wouldn’t return to La Scala as she didn’t want the focus to be on her and the past, hoping to turn the spotlight to the current generation of singers and conductors. But, she makes an exception when Maestro Muti became La Scala’s music director and started to go to his rehearsals. She notes that he got the soul of Verdi’s music to “shine” once again, which, I guess, wasn’t really happening for a long period of time. Reflecting back on the performances of Falstaff reminded me of the inexplicable magic that happens when Maestro Muti conducts Verdi, and I’m sure there will be plenty of more moments like that to come in the next decade!

And that’s it, my decade in review! It’s been a wonderful past couple of years and I’m greatly looking forward to all the music in store for 2020 and beyond. Happy new year to all, and hope it’s filled with great music 😀

I’m currently a graduate student at Northwestern University, working on developing bio-integrated electronics and microfluidics for health monitoring and pain therapeutic applications. I’m also an avid listener of classical music and am particularly interested in the musicology of 19th century Italian opera, especially those of Giuseppe Verdi. View all posts by Claire Liu

Originally published at on December 31, 2019.

PhD student at Northwestern working on bio-integrated devices for health applications. Also interested in 19th century Italian opera musicology.