Henze premiere in the spotlight with Stenz and the Civic Orchestra

Wed Dec 09, 2009 at 2:44 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Hans Werner Henze

Markus Stenz is clearly not a musician that likes to take a day off. In addition to leading the Lyric Opera’s current production of Katya Kabanova, the conductor directed two Chicago Symphony Orchestra programs of Mahler and Mendelssohn last week, a pair of related Behind the Score events, and on Tuesday partnered with the Civic Orchestra in music of Henze and Schumann.

Hans Werner Henze’s position as one of the handful of great 20th century symphonists is secure, the German composer’s music charting an evolution from spiky atonal origins through doctrinaire Marxist tub-thumping and eventually to a less freighted, more tonal and flexible style. Yet even in his most acidulous works, Henze’s compositions are intelligently wrought, surely crafted, and undeniably compelling.

Kudos to Stenz and the Civic, the CSO’s youthful training ensemble, for presenting Henze’s Symphony No. 8 Tuesday night at Orchestra Hall in its belated Chicago premiere.

Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered by them under Seiji Ozawa in 1993, the Eighth is cast in three movements, inspired by passages from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first paints Oberon’s quarrel with his wife Titania and his instruction to the sprite Puck; the second section reflects Titania’s awakening from her spell and falling in love with the donkey-headed Bottom, who proceeds to serenade her; and the final movement evokes Puck’s closing speech (“If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended …”).

Though scored for large orchestra, Henz’s writing is light and piquant and has a great deal of charm as well as the composer’s vaunted technical facility. His depiction of Puck’s promise to Oberon to fly quickly and “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes” is as clever as it is delightful, the swirling, mercurial music, restless and constantly in movement like the hyperkinetic, airborne Puck.

The rondo-like second movement is the most striking and directly programmatic, a witty rondo with violin solos representing the chemically enraptured Titania and a bumptious trombone depicting the rude mechanical, Bottom. The finale was the first music to be composed, but felt a bit prosaic and generalized, failing to evoke the repose and hymnlike reconciliation Henze says he was aiming for.

With Stenz, one of Henze’s leading champions on the podium, we were surely getting top advocacy, but despite its passing charms, I’m not convinced that Henze’s Eighth is among his strongest works. For all the literary inspiration and artful tone painting, the music is a bit busy and unvaried, or at least came across so, though the Civic members gave a committed account of the score.

Considering its reputation and the Civic Orchestra’s status as one of the country’s top training ensembles, the musicianship Tuesday night was decidedly uneven. The current Civic roster fields a fine, spirited and flexible string section but winds and brass were not in the same class, the corporate sound burly and unblended, lacking in tonal luster.

This was apparent in the blandly workmanlike reading of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony (No. 3). Stenz led in his alert, fitfully fussy style, yet this was a performance sorely wanting in gleam and personality, with pallid wind solos and more horn bloops than one might expect, even with the Henze taking up the bulk of rehearsal time.

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