CSO’s training orchestra remains a Civic treasure

Tue Sep 29, 2009 at 4:42 pm

By Bryant Manning

Cliff Colnot conducted the Civic Orchestra Monday night at Orchestra Hall.

The Civic Orchestra of Chicago is hardly a junior ensemble. While the name almost begs us to think of a community-level outfit, these young professional players are in fact primed for the rigors of a career in an elite symphonic institution. 

As the training ensemble of the Chicago Symphony and the only such entity paired with a major U.S. orchestra, the Civic hosts a swinging door for prominent guest conductors in first-rate concerts that are free of charge. Collaborations with Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bernard Haitink and Kent Nagano are just a few of the notable partnerships that have taken place over the last couple of years.

Local conductor Cliff Colnot, however, is the rock and driving force of the orchestra. Colnot opened the Civic’s 91st season on Monday night at Orchestra Hall with a program of tugging Teutonic opposites: Beethoven’s amiable Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) and Paul Hindemith’s punchy Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber.

Hindemith’s 1943 playful symphonic showpiece is a rhythmic force with origins in ballet, but the work wasn’t performed as such until George Balanchine’s New York City ballet premiered it almost a decade later. It was choreographer Leonid Massine who suggested to Hindemith he write a ballet based on Weber’s music before the two had a falling out. Whatever esoteric morsels of Weber we hear are largely obscured by the German √©migr√©’s codified and heavily indulgent scoring.

The orchestra ate this all up.  The work is a Stravinskian snapshot colored with a few shades of The Pines of Rome, and several Civic soloists took the opportunity to show off the individual goodies written into the music. Horns, flutes and low strings all had a bite and swagger that even the most gifted regional professional orchestras would have had trouble matching.

The Oriental-tinged scherzo radiated with abundant color, propelled with a percussive energy that would recur in the final Shostakovich-like march. The unmemorable andantino happens to be saved by some amazing virtuosic flute writing, a solo that would have even made Debussy sit up and listen.

Still, no matter who the ensemble and conductor, this is music that’s hard to snuggle to. A nice pretty gloss coats this music, but it can dirty-up pretty quick without an enthusiastic performance and dynamic, sonorous treatment. The Civic delivered on all accounts.

Although performed with equal brilliance of sound, the Beethoven suffered mildly from a sobriety that downplayed the composer’s drunk-on-life escapades in the countryside. Colnot has interesting ideas about this music but his glacially-paced tempi in the opening movement turned “happy feelings” into sleepy ones, which carried over to the brook scene as well.

The individual performances were top shelf and hearty kudos to bassoonist Susan Stokdyk, flutist Jeong-Hyung Kim and the oboes-at-large for providing the nimble and sparkling woodwind playing on which this symphony thrives. Similarly, the smoky and thick-bodied tone in the lower strings would’ve made any audiophile drool. And while there certainly have been more raging thunderstorms than the one we heard Monday, Colnot’s tempest had a certain abstract appeal that allowed Beethoven’s writing to breathe. Even the jovial peasant gathering felt like more like a spirited game of bridge instead of rustic dance. 

 Yet the intensifying buildup in the final Shepherd’s Song packed a wallop that might have been lost had Colnot not opted for such a steady and, perhaps for some, vanilla reading. The standing ovation was well-deserved and this was more than simply an Orchestra Hall primer for the CSO’s anticipated homecoming later in the week. Here was a pleasant reminder that some of the city’s strongest orchestral players aren’t limited to Chicago Symphony and Lyric Orchestra payrolls.

Posted in Performances

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