Monday, October 5, 2009
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s recently completed European tour with principal conductor Bernard Haitink resembled a series of breathtaking Old Master paintings, large-scale masterworks exquisitely presented in five of the world’s musical capitals — Berlin, Lucerne, Vienna. Paris and London — to rapt and then ecstatic audiences.
Back at Orchestra Hall, the CSO’s opening weekend of concerts with the excellent and remarkably flexible guest conductor Paavo Jarvi left an impression more of a mixed collage of elements varied in both format and quality.
Friday’s one-off deserved a week’s subscription run. A heart-stopping account of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations opened the evening as a memorial tribute to the longest-serving (54 years) and one of the most loved members of the orchestra, cellist Philip Blum, who died last month at 77. Leonard Bernstein’s 1954 “Serenade, after Plato’s ‘Symposium’ ” is played so rarely that President Obama’s senior advisor David Axelrod took a “music leave” from the White House to come home to hear it. Israeli violin soloist Vadim Gluzman’s insightful performance, both lyrical and virtuosic, made the trip worthwhile.
That Jarvi took up Bartok’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra, a CSO staple for more than 60 years, was a sign of both his confidence and abilities. With the orchestra in its finest shape in decades, Jarvi found just the right way both to shape this modern masterpiece and to give the many soloists and sections the freedom to play as Bartok wanted them to. Guest principal flute Thomas Robertello deserves special notice for his hypnotic playing. Jarvi gave Bernstein’s “Candide” overture, moved to encore position, one of the most thrilling and tight performances I’ve ever heard.
Saturday’s “Opening Night” gala was again a showcase for Jarvi’s hand with both Bernstein, here another rarity in the 1980 “Divertimento,” and tone-poems, here another CSO signature work, Richard Strauss’ 1894-95 “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.” Total control with lack of dogmatism and respect for soloists again marked the globe-trotting Estonian-born conductor’s method. Guest diva Renee Fleming’s work in Samuel Barber’s 1947 setting of James Agee’s memory text “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” was absolutely baffling. In a work that is all about its haunting text, almost every word was unintelligible and poorly projected. It took two Strauss songs, more the soprano’s territory, for her to come near what she can do best, and it was really only in an encore of “Morgen” from the 1894 Four Songs of Op. 27 that there was any sense of what all the hubbub was about.
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).