Sunday, October 4, 2009
The gala concert with starry guest artist is the obligatory traditional herald of a new musical season. Renée Fleming was the prime attraction for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s formal soiree Saturday night, and while the concert may have been the second CSO event of the weekend, for all intents and purposes it served as the essential kickoff to the CSO’s 119th season.
Led by Paavo Jarvi, the lightish program of American music and Richard Strauss provided the right festive, interval-less evening, the better for the formally dressed first-nighters to get to the champagne and canapés.
The popular soprano looked svelte and glamorous, and brought music both familiar to her repertoire—Strauss lieder—and less familiar, with Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915.
Barber’s setting is one of his finest works, deftly capturing James Agee’s piercingly evocative text of his Tennessee boyhood, and its childish wonder, ironic nostalgia and aching retrospective sadness.
The work was commissioned and premiered by Eleanor Steber, a singer with a lyric voice and repertoire that closely matches that of Fleming. Yet Barber’s music seems to come off best with sopranos with lighter instruments who are able to get around Agee’s long conversational lines with the requisite agility.
Knoxville is a challenging work to bring off in concert, and so it proved Saturday, even for an artist of Fleming’s versatility. Jarvi and the orchestra set the right relaxed, gently swaying soundscape in the opening bars, and Fleming appeared in synch with the music’s reflective melancholy. But by the quicker lines of the middle section, her words became increasingly unintelligible and largely continued that way, unaided by Jarvi’s failure to dexterously balance the orchestra with his soloist.
The glamorous soprano was much more in her element with a set of Strauss songs. Rarely will one hear a voice so suited to repertoire, with Fleming’s rich, creamy soprano and impassioned style riding Strauss’s long lines. The singer balanced the unbridled moments with a touching expressive intimacy, her artistry at its finest with a notably ardent Zueignung and Fleming making a mini-opera scena out of the expansive romantic yearning of Verfuhrung.
Repeated ovations brought Fleming back for encores—-more Strauss, including a rapt, otherworldly rendering of Morgen with Robert Chen’s crystalline violin solo on the same rarefied level as the singer. Fleming called it a night with Bernstein’s I feel pretty from West Side Story, done in lightly self-mocking fashion. The soprano mixed up the verses, but no matter—the memorable Strauss performances sent most of the audience happily into the rainy evening.
Continuing the weekend’s Bernstein motif, Jarvi led off the evening with one of the composer’s symphonic rarities, the Divertimento for Orchestra. Written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1980, the work is wholly characteristic in its brash ingenuity, musical in-jokes, and jocular humor.
Jarvi deftly brought out the subversive musical wit, giving the lilting Waltz a light airy grace, underlining the mordant woodwinds in the Chopin-esque Mazurka, and putting across the high-stepping exuberance of the Samba. Who else but Bernstein (in Sphinxes) could so winningly pull off a bluesy brass movement in serial style? The final march feting the Boston Symphony is just as audacious with Sousa sendups (two piccolo players called to stand during solos) and a swaggering rhythmic kick that echoes the Dance at the Gym from West Side Story. Under Jarvi’s precise yet flexible direction, the CSO seemed to enjoy this music immensely, with the conductor underlining the witty scoring and ensuring textural clarity even in the most raucous moments.