In Spano’s bland CSO program, less is sometimes less

Thu Mar 11, 2010 at 1:56 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Robert Spano conducted the CSO Wednesday night.

This is a week when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra divides its forces with half the orchestra playing the program led by Robert Spano, while the other half is performing Bach’s St. John Passion under Bernard Labadie.

The first of the week’s programs got off to a lackluster start Wednesday night as part of the CSO’s Rush Hour concerts. While it looked interesting enough on paper, the performances were surprisingly dull and routine, coming from one of our finest conductors.

Part of the issue seemed sheer logistics. The evening led off with Schubert’s Unfinished symphony, Spano leading a taut reading that was well played, with especially fine oboe work by Eugene Izotov.

Yet whether dictated by period esthetics or the number of string players available, the forces seemed out of whack with tiny string choirs (just four cellos) set against the ample wind and brass contingent. The result was an unbalanced performance with Spano’s trim, technocratic view further playing down the drama.

Osvaldo Golijov scored four elegiac Schubert songs for orchestra under the collective name of one setting, She Was Here, as a tribute to the late stage and film director Anthony Minghella.

The shimmering mysterious introduction is Golijov’s own creation and his settings are skillfully done, with haunting luminous textures that suit these introspective settings.

She Was Here would likely make a more effective impact with a stronger soloist than was heard Wednesday night. Soprano Jessica Rivera started the first song (Wandrers Nachtlied) so softly she was virtually inaudible and while she sang with greater presence in the other settings, her deliberate phrasing, monochrome coloring and lack of expression gave the impression of a singer carefully tip-toeing through the score (which she read from) rather than performing the music.

Spano presented Copland’s ballet suite from Appalachian Spring not in its familiar orchestral guise, but in the original version for 13 instruments.

While it’s interesting to hear Copland create such an extraordinary masterwork from the limited forces necessitated by the ballet’s premiere (4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, doublebass, flute, clarinet, bassoon and piano), it seems a bit bizarre for a full symphony orchestra to perform the chamber version on an orchestral series.

With Spano setting brisk tempos and leading from a cool perspective, this was a bland, uninvolved performance that was adequately played but mostly skirted the essential nostalgia and sadness of the score. Guest flutist Lorna McGhee’s unevenly projected playing made little of her opportunities in the Copland or Schubert symphony. Only John Bruce Yeh’s personality-plus clarinet playing lifted the Copland performance out of the routine.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Thursday and 8 pm. Friday with the addition of Copland’s Emily Dickinson Songs.; 312-294-3000.

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One Response to “In Spano’s bland CSO program, less is sometimes less”

  1. Posted Mar 11, 2010 at 11:37 pm by lpd773

    The Chicago Chamber Musicians’ performance of Appalachian Spring at the Harris Theater in June 2006 forever endeared the piece to me. Alas, the contrast here was a bit jarring and more than a little disappointing, sorry to say.

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