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Two things made Friday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert notable. First, the program offered a choice pairing of 20th-century American works, a rarity in the current CSO era. Secondly, the event offered the downtown podium debut of Marin Alsop, which proved something to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving weekend.
Alsop’s only previous CSO appearance was a single stand at Ravinia a decade ago, and Friday night’s belated subscription debut can only make one wonder why it took so long for a return engagement.
There were female conductors on the scene who preceded Alsop yet the 59-year-old New York native is the first American woman to enjoy a truly international podium career. Music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2007, Alsop has recently had her contract extended through 2021. She also leads the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil, as well as regularly guest conducting leading orchestras around the world.
Music of Dvořák and American composers constitute Alsop specialties and her CSO program played to these strengths.
For all his renown, Samuel Barber’s popularity rests largely on his Adagio for Strings and Violin Concerto, with a great deal of the American composer’s output still hovering in the shadows. Among these lesser-known items are his three Essays for orchestra, the second of which was performed Friday night.
As the title suggests, Barber’s Essays are non-programmatic works of pure music. The Essay No. 2, in particular, is almost a micro-symphony, packing considerable substance into a single movement spanning just 11 minutes. Barber’s voice is unmistakeable in this taut wartime work (1942) with its jagged, surging drama and strain of ruminative melancholy. Alsop led a full-blooded reading that brought out the searching expression and restless drama, the fugal final section leading to a hard-won, eloquent coda.
A considerably better-known quantity is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, performed by soloist Jon Kimura Parker, who was also making his downtown CSO debut.
The ebullient Canadian pianist brought a bristling nervous energy to Gershwin’s jazz-meets-classical warhorse that managed to make this music emerge surprisingly fresh after decades of familiarity (exacerbated by numbing iteration from United Airlines commercials). If some of his solo lingering seemed self-conscious, Parker’s virtuosity in the cadenzas and final section were undeniably thrilling. Alsop and the orchestra lent equally idiomatic and high-stepping support, not least John Bruce Yeh’s sassy-sleazy opening clarinet solo.
Regret that Parker wasn’t performing Gershwin’s more substantial Concerto in F was mitigated by the pianist’s dazzling encore of Oscar Peterson’s Blue Etude, a whirlwind bit of finger-blurring jazz virtuosity that brought the audience to its feet.
For many Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 is the Czech composer’s finest work in the genre, his melodic Bohemian flavor and rhythmic vivacity allied to a darker, tougher style.
At times one wanted a bit more tonal refinement and greater nuance in dynamic and colors in Friday’s performance which fitfully tilted toward generalized vehemence. Yet, as shown in her Naxos recordings, Alsop clearly has an idiomatic way with Dvořák’s music, putting across the bucolic lyricism while keeping a firm undercurrent of dramatic urgency.
The woodwinds were especially fine in the Adagio, conveying Dvorak’s pastoral lyricism, particularly flutist Thomas Robertello (Indiana University) and oboist Charles Hamann (National Arts Centre Orchestra, Ottawa). The Scherzo is among the composer’s best, and Alsop alertly charted the movement as it morphs from tripping, dancelike sway into restless agitation and back. The performance was rounded off with a propulsive finale that conveyed the music’s rugged fervor with a fiery and emphatic coda.
Alsop led off the evening with the local premiere of Anna Clyne’s Masquerade. The conductor debuted the work at the Last Night of the Proms in 2013, and Clyne’s five-minute showpiece for large orchestra takes inspiration from the carnival-like milieu of London’s original Promenade concerts, drawing in part on an old English drinking song for material.
Despite its roiling volume and waves of sound, Masquerade is more chaotic than exhilarating, its herky-jerky writing and heavy-footed rhythms impeding the brilliant effect it is striving for. Alsop led a vital performance and the CSO’s former composer in residence was on hand to share in the polite applause.
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.