Chicago Symphony’s return marked by a jovial program with Bramwell Tovey

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
February 4, 2017

Walton: Orb and Sceptre
Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34
Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 – Act II

After devoting January to an extensive and triumphant European tour, the Chicago Symphony returned to Symphony Center last weekend in their first concert on home turf since mid-December.  This also marked the subscription debut of the talented British conductor Bramwell Tovey, who currently serves as music director of the Vancouver Symphony.  The repertoire choices spanned the European continent from a British first half to a Russian finale, alluring in their ebullience.

Bramwell Tovey

A rarity (and first performance for the CSO) opened in Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, a spirited coronation march he wrote for the crowning of Elizabeth II in 1953.  It began with extrovert playing in brass, sounding not unlike the ubiquitous Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The score called for an organ which gave matters a particularly ceremonial quality.  The work’s showstopping moment came in the contrasting lyrical theme which invoked the nobility of Elgar, and returned in the concluding peroration – the CSO’s energetic playing bordering on the overzealous.

Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra began with a stately presented of the Baroque theme, derived from the Rondeau of Purcell’s incidental music to Abdelazer.  Opening with the force of the full orchestra, the variations are distilled to each of the constituent instruments, teaching the titular young listener to identify the characteristic sound of each.  Among the highpoints were Keith Buncke demonstrating the lyrical potential of the bassoon, and the trumpet duet between Mark Ridenour and Tage Larsen.  The closing fugue was innocently initiated in the piccolo by Jennifer Gunn (though regrettably, not without a few missed notes), building up to the thrilling climax in which Purcell’s original melody is superimposed over Britten’s fugue subject.  The dignified manner in which the musicians presented the work made the case that only the subtitle – “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell” – was necessary, this being a work of much more than mere didacticism.

The latter half was devoted the entire second act of Tchaikovsky’s seminal ballet score, The Sleeping Beauty.  Despite the act’s abundance of first-rate music, it’s also some of the ballet’s least-known as none appears in the familiar suite the composer extracted (and of which Muti conducted during a memorable all-Tchaikovsky program in Millennium Park at the beginning of the 2014-15 season).  Tovey provided the audience with a spoken introduction, detailing the act’s plot and brimming with his characteristic British wit.

A rustic atmosphere drew the audience into Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale world, as portrayed by the brilliance of the horns.  Tovey suggested that the harp represents the realm of the supernatural, and it was beautifully played by Sarah Bullen, a noteworthy addition to the score’s rich colors.  Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s silvery flute vividly brought the Lilac Fairy to life.  The farandole was another delightful moment, though Tchaikovsky imbued it with an ineffable Eastern tinge, à la the mazurka.  John Sharp’s cello solo truly yearned in the Pas d’action, only to be outdone by concertmaster Robert Chen’s extended passagework in the Entr’acte that heralds the act’s finale (and originally composed for Leopold Auer).  Heretofore silent, the percussionists finally had their due in the concluding moments, Cynthia Yeh’s gong dramatically signifying the long-awaited awakening of Aurora, and the act concluded in rousing fashion.

Van Zweden, Trifonov, and the Cleveland Orchestra find fresh inspiration in Mozart and Beethoven

Cleveland Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 27, 2016

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Cleveland Orchestra presented a sumptuous program anchored by seminal works of Mozart and Beethoven.  After being heralded earlier this year as the New York Philharmonic’s music director-designate, all eyes have been on Jaap van Zweden.  The program played on his strengths, and even the most familiar of repertoire sounded dynamic and anew under his probing guidance.

Jaap van Zweden, photo credit Bert Hulselmans

The afternoon began in somewhat less familiar territory with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, a work the orchestra has not performed since the 1970s.  A triptych of succinct, interconnected movements, it encapsulates the composer’s pacifist leanings and is an important precursor to the watershed War Requiem.  The opening Lacrymosa began quite strikingly in the timpani and piano, keyboardist Joela Jones providing an unrelenting, anxious ostinato.  The oboe passages of principal Frank Rosenwein were strained and pained in a texture that built to surging brass climaxes in its ethos of despair.

Nervous flutes opened the Dies irae but the heart of the piece was in the concluding Requiem aeternam.  While in lesser hands it can sound like a plodding passacaglia, under van Zweden’s baton it was peaceful and plaintive, building to an arching lyricism in serene resolution, worlds apart from the austerity of the opening.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 brought forth the remarkable young pianist Daniil Trifonov, who has an important connection to the city having studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music.  The concerto opened in the airy textures of the strings, with a gesture as gentle as an exhale, and it was with that naturalness the music flowed.  Trifonov’s entrance was unassuming and graceful, and he emphasized the work’s lyrical beauty and dramatic contrasts as per his propensity to the Romantic repertoire, though never in excess.  The cadenza was fleet and deftly balanced, displaying Trifonov’s astonishing dexterity.

Daniil Trifonov

Cast in the relative key of F sharp minor, the slow movement was filled with longing, and the winds were almost decadent in the splendor of their singing lines.  Trifonov would often glance heavenward as if seeking some divine inspiration, fitting for music this sublime.  The sprightly rondo finale is inherently familiar to many Clevelanders, in its frequent appearances as theme music on WCLV.  Although there were shades of darkness in its minor key episodes, the overall mood was of pure joie de vivre.

Perhaps the greatest interpretative challenge of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is making one of the most popular pieces in the literature sound anything but trite and clichéd.  Van Zweden proved amply up to the challenge as was apparent right from the crispness of the arresting opening, in a first movement that was lean and taut.  Its violent contrasts were emphasized, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as it seemingly could devolve into wild abandon at any moment, yet matters were always tightly controlled.

The slow movement began with some especially lovely tones in the cellos, and the interplay between the martial and lyrical themes was cleanly delineated.  I was especially struck by the clarity of the third movement’s fugato section, the contrapuntal lines weaving in and out of the strings.  The finale was an exuberant and joyous affair, and the noteworthy addition of the trombone and the piccolo heightened its sense of drama to bring the concert to a rousing close.