Kraemer and the CSO team up for delightful Haydn and Mozart

Fri Dec 11, 2009 at 1:42 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nicholas Kraemer conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

Thursday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert had an unusual significance in that it was likely the first and only concert in history to pair Telemann’s Tafelmusik with Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen.

Bizarre partners to be sure, but this week half the orchestra is off and works for smaller ensembles are in the spotlight. The good news is that with Nicholas Kraemer on the podium, the program of mostly Mozart, Haydn and Telemann served up one of the most sheerly enjoyable concerts of the season.

Kraemer’s bona fides are well known locally as principal guest conductor of Music of the Baroque. Yet the witty, spirited performances he drew from a downsized CSO in Baroque and Classical works were first class across the board, displaying the orchestra’s remarkable flexibility and panache in pre-Romantic repertoire.The English conductor showed he has a real gift with Haydn last May in Music of the Baroque’s season-closing concerts. The CSO performance Thursday night of the composer’s Symphony No. 88 was on the same high level.

The work is one of the lesser-known Haydn symphonies, likely due to its lacking an anthropomorphic title, yet wholly characteristic in its melodic invention, whirlwind energy and ingenuity. Kraemer, directing sans score or baton, and the CSO delivered a brilliant, effervescent account of this work, which provided a virtual seminar in Haydn performance.

The trick in Haydn is not speed or volume but observing all of the reverses, dynamic contrasts and harmonic curveballs alertly yet naturally in tempo, which makes the humor and high spirits come across vividly. Kraemer understands this and elicited a terrific idiomatic performance, with a wonderfully rustic Minuet and the laugh-out-loud musical wit of the outer movements delightfully tossed off by the CSO players.

The Haydn was preceded by that rarest of events, a CSO subscription premiere of music by Mozart. It’s amazing to think that the Divertimento in D major, K. 131, was having its belated downtown debut Thursday, even in incomplete form.

Here too, Kraemer has a deft, nonpedantic touch, vibrato discreetly allowed, and the CSO surely conveyed the gracious expression and originality of this early work. The Divertimento is Haydn-esque in its offbeat scoring and effects, with the 16-year-old Mozart reveling in the colors of the four horns and virtuosic wind solos, here delivered with finesse and personality-plus playing by the musicians.

Both the Haydn and Mozart performances were enhanced considerably by the contributions of Mark Sparks, principal flute of the Saint Louis Symphony, who was sitting in as a guest this week. If this is the start of an extended tryout for the vacant principal chair, it was a very impressive debut.

In his Chicago Symphony bow two seasons ago, Kraemer introduced Telemann’s Tafelmusik to CSO subscription audiences and again offered a suite of excerpts from that ample catalogue, this time from the second volume. Impeccably balanced, idiomatic and vibrant, Kraemer, leading skillfully from the harpsichord, largely just let the orchestra play, which they did with immense verve in this tuneful and vivacious music. There were fine contributions from oboist Michael Henoch and, especially, Chris Martin, whose stylish and bravura solos were as impressive a model of Baroque trumpet playing as one is ever likely to hear.

At the close of World War II, the aged Richard Strauss was despondent over the devastation wrought on Germany, with the opera houses of Dresden, Munich and Vienna, sites of so many of his triumphs, in ruins. His late Metamorphosen surveys the wreckage with bleak introspection and a sense of subdued tragedy, the clinical subtitle, “Study for 22 solo strings,” barely hinting at the deep vein of personal feeling in this music.

Kraemer clearly has the measure of this score, directing a flowing, notably transparent reading that showcased the skill with which Strauss weaves twenty-two individual lines into a uniquely moving valedictory statement.

Yet for all the beauty and polish of the CSO strings, this performance was less successful, feeling a bit light and, well, Baroque. There is a weariness, dark dramatic weight, and sonorous ballast this music calls out for and Thursday’s performance missed the expressive intensity and full tragic dimension. I’m not sure anything was gained by having the musicians standing to play since the CSO strings can perform with equal intensity, sitting or standing.

The final pages were sensitively rendered, however, which made the immediate applause by one cretinous audience member, immediately joined by others, even more disastrous. How many quiet codas have to be ruined this season at Orchestra Hall before clueless audience members wake up?

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

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One Response to “Kraemer and the CSO team up for delightful Haydn and Mozart”

  1. Posted Dec 11, 2009 at 3:21 pm by James

    Thanks for mentioning the inexplicable epidemic of inappropriately rushed applause at Orchestra Hall this year. I wasn’t at this concert, but both the Brahms Requiem and the Mahler 4 performances I attended this season were marred in the same way. Maestro Muti appeared to be visibly offended when the sublime silence after the Brahms was broken too abruptly. One wonders whether the applauder(s) have actually been listening to and assimilating the musical proceedings or are simply applauding because the music has stopped.

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