Rare Martinů and familiar Debussy and Tchaikovsky make for compelling CSO program

Fri May 07, 2010 at 3:47 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bohuslav Martinů’s The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca was performed by the CSO under Ludovic Morlot Thursday night.

Bohuslav Martinů holds a position of prominence on any well-informed auditor’s list of the 20th century’s most inexplicably neglected composers. The Czech composer wrote voluminously in all genres including six symphonies, several operas and ballets, and a vast trove of choral works and chamber music.

Kudos to conductor Ludovic Morlot for introducing local audiences to a significant Martinů work, The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, which had its local premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

Cast in three movements, the 1955 work was inspired by the eponymous 15th-century Italian artist’s religious frescoes in Arezzo, which depict various manifestations of the power of the cross.

Martinů largely played down any specific programmatic correlations in the score, and that’s probably the best way to approach this music. Frescoes is characteristic of the composer in its essentially tonal style yet spiked with a harmonic tartness and rhythmic instability that compel attention. As always, the composer never plays to the gallery but his music is unerringly crafted, and Morlot and the orchestra conveyed the elliptical spirituality and restless radiance of this fascinating score.

A much better known triptych was the centerpiece, Debussy’s La Mer. Somewhat surprisingly for a French conductor, Morlot took a brisk, at times technocratic approach, missing some of the languor and sensuality of the opening movement.

Ludovic Morlot

The rest was all gain, however. Morlot brought a quick, almost subversive jauntiness to the “Play of the Waves” and there was power and storm-tossed drama to spare in the final section. The CSO brass and winds were at their finest with notable contributions from trumpeters Chris Martin and Mark Ridenour, English hornist Scott Hostetler, oboist Eugene Izotov and flutist Matthew Dufour.

Another CSO first chair player, Robert Chen, was in the spotlight on Thursday’s second half as solo protagonist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

Robert Chen

The sterling technique and musical taste of the CSO’s concertmaster have illuminated the orchestra’s concerts for the last decade. In Thursday night’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s mighty fiddle warhorse, some might have preferred a bit more dramatic bite and a stronger interpretive profile, particularly in the opening movement.

But Chen’s performance provided its own considerable rewards, and the violinist’s silvery tone, polish and unfailing elegance was suggestive at times of the great Arthur Grumiaux. Yet he dispatched the bravura fireworks of the finale with ample fire and excitement, his passagework and articulation as even and flawless as one is ever likely to hear.

The Canzonetta provided the high point of the performance, Chen playing with great delicacy and tender, inward expression, drawing an array of gentle half-tones in this nocturnal, ruminative music. Morlot and the orchestra provided attentive, alertly scaled support, the CSO woodwinds in particular backing their colleague with equal sensitivity.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. 312-294-3000; www.cso.org.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Rare Martinů and familiar Debussy and Tchaikovsky make for compelling CSO program”

  1. Posted May 19, 2010 at 11:31 am by Lewis Bantock

    Thanks for the review. I saw the Saturday performance and enjoyed it very much. Morlot is a fine conductor. Hopefully the CSO plays the Martinu again sometime.

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