Saturday, October 3, 2009
Though the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is holding its splashy season-opening gala Saturday, the orchestra’s 119th season actually commenced Friday night at Symphony Center. Led by guest conductor Paavo Jarvi, the concert of works by Bernstein and Bartok was a subtle but emphatic reminder of exactly why the CSO is one of Chicago’s most internationally acclaimed institutions.
Coming less than 12 hours after the city lost its bid for the 2016 Olympics, the reminder was especially welcome. Chicago has basked in the CSO’s reflected glory since 1971 when music director Georg Solti led its first international tour. European music lovers and critics fell hard for the orchestra’s high-energy, precision-tooled sound, and over the years the love affair spread to Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia. It continued last month with a European tour that took the CSO to Paris, Lucerne, Vienna, Berlin and London.
If the musicians were tired from the tour or less than happy about settling back into their work-a-day schedule in Chicago, it wasn’t apparent in the lustrous sound and hyper-alert responsiveness Jarvi drew from them.
Perhaps they were inspired by the fact that the concert was dedicated to one of their own, cellist Philip Blum who died Aug. 31 at age 77. Hired in 1955 and planning to retire last month, he was one of the CSO’s longest-serving members. His fellow musicians honored him Friday, opening the evening with a lovingly shaded reading of the elegiac Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Moving from quiet reflection to full-throated, noble song, it was a fitting tribute to a beloved colleague.
From that somber opening, the mood shifted into high gear. The program was meaty, with a highly colored performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and violinist Vadim Gluzman making an impressive CSO subscription debut as soloist in Bernstein’s virtuosic Serenade. Born in Ukraine and a long-time resident of Israel, Gluzman has made his home on Chicago’s North Shore in recent years.
Composed in 1954, Bernstein’s Serenade for solo violin and orchestra was inspired by Plato’s Symposium, and the intense, sometimes playful exchanges between Gluzman and the CSO echoed the shape of Plato’s dialogues, the sweet, penetrating tone of his 1690 Stradivari violin sailing easily over the orchestra. Shifting between serene, long-lined lyricism and more astringent, darkly edgy passages, Gluzman and the orchestra were equal partners in a heady musical conversation.
Bartok’s massive Concerto for Orchestra is one of the CSO’s signature pieces, and doubtless many in the audience remembered Solti’s powerful performances of the work in Chicago. Jarvi seemed unworried about any such comparisons, leading the CSO in a confident performance brimming with expansive sweep and meticulously rendered detail. Rarely has the CSO sounded more transparent or tightly woven.
Ending on a festive note, Jarvi called the orchestra back for an encore—Bernstein’s Candide Overture, which had originally been scheduled to open the evening. He set dangerously fast tempos, but the orchestra navigated the score’s exhilarating twists and turns with the élan of Formula One drivers.