Civic’s Sibelius a bit too civilized in lackluster evening

Tue Mar 09, 2010 at 12:09 pm

By Bryant Manning

Ordinary music-making tends to seem worse than it really is when an extraordinary ensemble is involved. This season the Civic Orchestra—training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony—has given some of the city’s most exciting concerts in both programming and delivery. But after Monday night’s mostly forgettable hourlong performance, the orchestra should be pleading for a mulligan.

As a conducting protégé of Bernard Haitink, Britain native Leo McFall shares many enviable traits with the Dutchman. There is a real finesse to his craft and he is clearly a pragmatist when it comes to interpreting the big scores. Yet for whatever reasons there was very little magic to speak of in Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, where both he and the orchestra produced few musical sparks in a work that’s stockpiled with them.

The serene and mystical opening moved trivially along without a clear sense of direction. Tentative phrasing and a recurring sense of apathy undermined Sibelius’s vision of this music being played by “God’s orchestra.” Just when it looked like the French horns’ cinematic theme would salvage this mostly dull performance, the symphony’s final six chords seemed to be shot out of a BB gun rather than a cannon.

The more gratifying half of the program included colorful works by Debussy and the CSO’s Mead Composer in Residence, Mark-Anthony Turnage. With music geared more towards timbres than architecture, McFall sculpted a cleanly expressive sound, notably in Turnage’s fine homage to his teacher Hans Werner Henze.

Written for the German composer’s 80th birthday in 2006, Lullaby for Hans is a shadowy work for string orchestra that evokes few of the Englishman’s jazz and pop influences. In just six minutes, the music sounds like a fragmented sketchbook of the Adagio to Mahler’s Ninth, with its aching lyricism communicated in a lush but modern vernacular. McFall and the Civic were sensitive advocates and Turnage took a well-deserved on-stage bow.

McFall found a stronger vision in two of Debussy’s Nocturnes for orchestra. The immaculate and quietly undulating Clouds gave way to a caressing English horn solo, and the more spirited Festivals featured a hypnotic chorale of muted trumpets. These lightly etched soundscapes were wondrously ethereal and inspired—but a mere glimpse into what might’ve been.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Civic’s Sibelius a bit too civilized in lackluster evening”

  1. Posted Mar 11, 2010 at 10:40 pm by The "caress" master

    As a noted performer in this review, I have to say that I felt the Sibelius was quite well played.

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