Clyne’s new CSO work bridges the violin generations

Fri Dec 14, 2012 at 5:28 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Violin soloists Jennifer Koh and Jaime Laredo perform Anna Clyne’s “Prince of Clouds” Thursday night with conductor Harry Bicket and the CSO. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The vagaries of the concert calendar have resulted in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offering back-to-back premieres in its final two programs of 2012. Next week principal trumpet Christopher Martin will perform the world premiere of Heimdall’s Trumpet by Christopher Rouse. And Thursday night audiences heard the CSO debut of Anna Clyne’s latest work, Prince of Clouds.

The commission for Prince of Clouds came about after violinist Jennifer Koh became friends with the CSO’s co-composer in residence and asked Clyne for a concerto that she could perform with her teacher and longtime mentor, Jaime Laredo. The work was unveiled last month in Germantown, Tennessee by Koh and Laredo with the IRIS Orchestra, and the same soloists served up the Chicago premiere Thursday with conductor Harry Bicket and the CSO.

Though the inspiration for the title is left unexplained in the program’s Q&A notes, Clyne states that Prince of Clouds reflects “musical lineage” and a slowly evolving artistic family tree of sorts. “This transfer of knowledge and inspiration between generations is a beautiful gift,” says the 32-year-old British composer, who worked closely with Koh and Laredo during the writing of the piece.

Cast in a single movement for two violins and small backing string ensemble and running about 15 minutes, Prince of Clouds is closer to a Baroque concerto than a self-consciously brilliant modern display piece for two violinists. Indeed, the two solo lines closely echo and follow each other and Clyne said she is self-consciously striving for a lean, stripped down sound with sparing, precisely notated vibrato and instructions to “play in a baroque style” throughout.

The concerto opens with a hushed see-sawing figure for the soloists. The music for the backing strings and the two violins turns sharp with sudden aggressive outbursts. The music segues into a expressive passage tinged with melancholy (marked “Beautiful with unease”), yet, as in Clyne’s affecting Within Her Arms, her astringent edge and tension firmly avoid the sentimental and lachrymose. The fragmented edgy music returns and after a new songful theme (Lilting and playful”) the jagged section returns, and the concerto ends peacefully with a quiet close (“Spilling into tender light”).

A cellist, Clyne’s inspiration is often at its best in her string music, where she writes with originality and facility. The one debit in Clyne’s first concerto is that the soloists’ roles and music are not differentiated or contrasted enough, both between themselves and against the small string orchestra. The two violins are bound so tightly that a busy, slightly anonymous concerto grosso feel surfaces, along with a certain repetitive quality in the alternation of contrasting material. That said, Prince of Clouds is wrought with Clyne’s characteristic craft and care, and offers the composer’s brand of reflective introspection that is consistently attractive.

Here making her belated CSO subscription debut, Chicago-area native Jennifer Koh fairly attacked the music with hyperactive abandon and flamboyant body language. Koh’s intense playing at times made Laredo’s more reserved style and lighter sound seem a bit laid-back by comparison, yet the variance in their approaches provided some welcome timbral contrast. Conductor Harry Bicket was a sympathetic colleague, drawing alert and attentive support from the CSO string ensemble. Both soloists and Clyne received warm applause for this CSO premiere.

The rest of the basically Bach concertante program was scored for the same forces of less than two-dozen players.

With no disrespect to the two guest violinists, the evening’s most all-around satisfying solo performance was given by the CSO’s own Scott Hostetler in his belated debut as concerto protagonist.

Eschewing his usual English horn for an oboe d’amore, Hostetler offered that rarest of things, a belated Bach CSO premiere with the Oboe d’amore Concerto in A major, BWV 1055. The music is better known in Bach’s later version for harpsichord with the original, like so many Bach scores, long lost.

The notes don’t provide information about the arranger or the provenance of this reconstructed version but Hostetler’s wholly captivating performance made an eloquent and convincing case for its legitimacy. The oboe d’amore has a more mellow, rounded and less penetrating tone than the standard oboe. Hosteteler assayed this music with the seamless fluency and easy articulation familiar to CSO audiences from his peerless English horn playing.

In the Larghetto, the soloist’s relaxed phrasing and inevitable-sounding rubato was magical, with extraordinary breath control in the long phrases. He also pointed the gentle charm of the final movement most winningly. Conducting from the harpsichord, Bicket and the CSO’s strings provided trim and stylish support.

The rest of the evening proved mixed.

Koh and Laredo returned for a worthy if somewhat unbalanced traversal of Bach’s “Double” Violin Concerto. Here the occasional technical lapses of the 71-year-old Laredo were more noticeable than in the Clyne work, though with Koh easing up on the throttle, the duo showed close musical sympathy with some nice dynamic detailing in a flowing account of the Largo.

Stravinsky’s engaging Dumbarton Oaks concerto received a vigorous, incisive performance, though, apart from the impish clarinet and bassoon, much of Stravinsky’s subversive Neoclassical wit seemed skated over in a rather straight-faced rendering.

With such an overstuffed program of concertante works, something was bound to suffer and that clearly was the case with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, which opened the evening. If there has ever been a more uninspired and charmless account of this music, I have yet to hear it.

Bicket opted for an extremely ascetic septet, which had the effect of making the performance both dry and undernourished, whatever the historic justification. Lack of rehearsal time can explain, to some extent, the unkempt balances and congested textures, even with a stripped-down force of just seven players.

Less explicable was the solo playing of Charles Pikler and Li-Kuo Chang. The two CSO violists brought some expressive poise to the slow movement but elsewhere there was little sympathy between the two men with casual, underprojected playing and some jarringly wayward intonation. The outer movements were a hash, to put it charitably.

One bright spot in this otherwise dismal outing was provided by the CSO’s newish principal bass Alexander Hanna, whose stylish, nuanced continuo playing was a pleasure to hear.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. cso.org; 312-294-3000

Posted in Performances


One Response to “Clyne’s new CSO work bridges the violin generations”

  1. Posted Dec 15, 2012 at 3:40 pm by Tod Verklärung

    As always, a good review. Back in the days when newspapers carried Sunday “think pieces” on classical music, one would encounter a critic’s discussion of the present status of the CSO once or twice a year. One sees little of that any more. But if I had a wish list for Chicago’s music critics, I’d want them to address the following questions:
    1. Has the precision of playing suffered a decline and what do the CSO’s Music Director and President have to say about that? What plans do they have to remedy it.
    2. Are there any plans to issue future recordings by the full orchestra? If so, when? If not, why not?
    3. What is the Music Director’s vision for the CSO, beyond simply giving good concerts?