Bronfman, CSO majestic in Brahms, but Berg the surprise show-stealer under Tilson Thomas

Fri Feb 12, 2010 at 2:41 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The majority of ticket-buyers for this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts are likely motivated by the chance to hear Yefim Bronfman tackle Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. And while Thursday night’s Brahms account was as imposing as one would expect, in many ways it was the riveting performance of Berg’s Three Pieces for orchestra, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, that proved most memorable.

Tilson Thomas is one of our most thoughtful programmers and the evening’s first half aptly prefaced Brahms’ mighty D-minor concerto with two contrasted early 20th-century works by Alban Berg and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

Berg’s Three Pieces, written in 1915, inhabit a kind of musical no-man’s land—a craggy landscape marked by the death of Mahler and traditional tonality, while not quite embracing the more rigid serialism of his teacher, Schoenberg. Despite the throwaway title, the three movements are a symphony in all but name, scored for massive Late Romantic orchestral forces. This restless, turbulent music ventures into uncharted regions, haunted by the shadow of Mahler yet reflecting the unsettled political and cultural climate of the era.

Berg’s Three Pieces clearly mean a great deal to the conductor as indicated by his extended introduction, with musical examples played by the orchestra, and his comments deftly set the historical and musical contexts.

This is the kind of brilliantly scored “difficult” music that Tilson Thomas excels in, and the CSO under his direction provided magnificent advocacy. From the hush of unpitched percussion that launches this 20-minute journey, the CSO put across the sonic fury and finely detailed brush-strokes of this remarkable score. The sense of controlled chaos, the collapse of the European order, and the center not holding were manifest in the grinding climax of the Prelude, the distorted Mahlerian waltz fragments, and the violent desperation of the trombone wails. The CSO musicians gave Tilson Thomas all he asked for and more—at one point percussionist Patricia Dash wields what looks like an oversized carnival mallet—in a performance of staggering power and intensity.

There’s plenty of upheaval in Brahms’ youthful concerto as well, the rage and despair over the death of Robert Schumann only partially mitigated by a lyrical rumination that is bleaker and more pessimistic than in many of the composer’s works.

Few can match Bronfman in this repertoire and Thursday the pianist again displayed the sonorous heft and lyric delicacy, explosive in the unbridled moments of the first movement, searching and introspective in the Adagio and playing with grim defiance in the Rondo finale. Tilson Thomas can sometimes seem a bit slick in Brahms, but here he and Bronfman made a fine team, the barely audible string playing in the slow movement a fine complement to his soloist’s gentle expression.

Crawford Seeger’s Andante for strings proved an apt curtain raiser for the evening, heard in its belated CSO premiere, surprising considering the composer’s Chicago history.

Seeger came of musical age in 1920s Chicago, where she became involved with the city’s burgeoning leftist-progressive arts community, and enjoyed friendships with Carl Sandburg and Jane Addams. For decades after her death, she was better known as the stepmother of folk singer Pete Seeger, but her own small but pioneering body of work has received overdue attention in recent years.

Like the Adagio for Strings, the Andante originated as the slow movement of a string quartet, but there’s no Barber-like solace in this music. The Andante builds clusters in unique fashion with changes in volume spread across instruments and strings pushed to their highest reaches in what the composer called “a study in dissonant dynamics.”

Tilson Thomas drew gleaming, knife-edged playing from the CSO strings in an incisive performance that underlined the originality of Crawford Seeger’s writing, the counterpoint pulsing like a throbbing wound.

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

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment