With a pair of debuts, a mixed night out for CSO
With Chicago taking a night off from a certain sporting event of interest, it was possible to focus one’s full concentration on Thursday night’s concert where two rising artists made their Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts.
Born in Columbia and Vienna-trained, Andrés Orozco-Estrada is currently music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, as well as chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic.
The 38-year-old conductor is an energetic podium presence. He directs the music with a clear beat and had his own ideas about how the works should be presented and how they should go–some convincing, some not.
The evening began with Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta. Amazingly for an orchestra led by Georg Solti and Fritz Reiner, this uber-Hungarian suite of indigenous folk dances has not been played by the CSO since Daniel Barenboim led the last performance in 2002.
Though the slow introduction was literal and lacking in atmosphere, the performance quickly found its footing. Stephen Williamson delivered a wonderfully rustic and febrile clarinet solo and all the woodwinds made charming contributions in the lightly scored middle section. Orozco-Estrada found a nice balance between geniality and syncopated energy in the contrasted dances, the orchestra putting across the closing section with idiomatic fire and whipcrack vehemence
Baiba Skride has been enjoying a major career in recent season, playing with leading international orchestras around the world. Which made her disappointing CSO debut in the Sibelius Violin Concerto all the more perplexing.
The Latvian violinist clearly was aiming for a more intimate approach than the usual Romantic barnburner which is fine. Backed by a bed of hushed orchestral strings, her entrance was evocative of the Finnish composer’s cool Northern style, Skride playing with a slender, silvery tone.
Yet as the opening movement wore on, there was a singular lack of tension and dramatic cut in her playing–making one feel that it was less a conscious interpretive choice than simply a tepid and uninvolved performance. The violinist’s playing was less polished than one would expect at this level, with intonation twisty and top notes turning sharp under pressure.
Skride’s self-conscious communing slowed the Adagio down to a crawl that would have stopped altogether with a less capable conductor. Even the finale failed to come off, with the adrenaline in Sibelius’s “polonaise for polar bears” blinking on and off like a light switch. Orozco-Estrada scaled down the orchestra to accommodate his soloist’s wayward interpretation and the ensemble managed to provide fitful moments of energy in a decidedly uneven solo performance.
Pairing Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question with Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra is becoming a popular programming device, with the American Yankee’s existential bitonal query echoing that of Strauss in the closing pages of his Nietzschean-inspired tone poem, written a decade earlier. Susanna Mälkki made her outstanding CSO debut with the same pairing in 2011, and Orozco-Estrada reprised it Thursday night.
While the Colombian conductor seemed to have a handle on Ives’ elusive score, Orozco-Estrada indulged in some theatrical add-ons that did no favors to the music or the performances. Rather than the single trumpet Ives requests, the conductor rescored The Unanswered Question for a trio of trumpets placed at various locations in the hall. This is not The Pines of Rome, and all that unwonted gimmickry did was distract one from the otherworldly mystery of the score, unaided by coughing and loudly dropped programs in the audience.
Equally dubious was Orozco-Estrada electing to go right into Zarathustra following the Ives without a pause, no doubt baffling newcomers to the Strauss tone poem.
The conductor led a solid reading, with an imposing opening “Sunrise” and uninhibited avian chirruping in the woodwinds. Yet this Strauss performance leaned toward the loud and unsubtle throughout and whenever the music became quiet or more complex, the necessary direction was not always forthcoming from the podium.
The hushed fugue from cello and basses in the “Of Science” section was muddy and lacking in clarity and precision. Robert Chen’s straight-faced violin solos gave little sense of subversive fun or enjoyment of Strauss’s Viennese waltz. The fading away of the questioning final notes was deftly handled by Orozco-Estrada and the musicians. But this was largely a surfacey traversal of Strauss’s philosophical music, missing the depth and exuberance Mälkki provided five years ago.
The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m Friday at Wheaton College, and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Center. cso.org; 312-294-3000.
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