CSO back on track with fizzing Bartok and Elgar led by Slatkin

Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 11:56 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Leonard Slatkin led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Elgar, Bartok and Stravinsky Thursday night.

The opening performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new year have been less than stellar for a variety of reasons.

Yet the lackluster recent weeks were decisively swept aside Thursday night with the CSO sounding once again like its inspired virtuosic self under the baton of Leonard Slatkin.

In the second conductor cancellation in as many weeks, John Eliot Gardiner pulled out of these programs due to a persistent shoulder injury. With his Detroit Symphony Orchestra still on strike, Slatkin was able to take the reins on short notice. (Some CSO members distributed leaflets in front of the hall pre-concert in support of their Detroit colleagues and urging an equitable solution to the strike.)

Few non-music directors have enjoyed such a close or long association with the CSO as Slatkin. Since his CSO debut in 1971, he’s conducted 47 subscription concert programs not counting numerous special concerts, run-outs, and dates at Ravinia.

Slatkin may not have been the scheduled conductor, but, serendipitously, this week’s program fits his musical sympathies like a well-tailored glove.

No American conductor has done more to promote the cause of Sir Edward Elgar’s music than Slatkin, and that advocacy was manifest in the evening’s opener, In the South (Alassio).

Like Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss before him, Elgar was inspired by a vacation to Italy, even one beset by gray skies and rainy weather. There are some suggestions of local color and history painting but the music remains Elgar through and through.

Slatkin led the orchestra in a ripe, unapologetically rich-textured performance imbued with Edwardian swagger, putting across the sumptuous scoring and giving imposing force to the tramp of the Roman legions. Yet the contrasting tenderness was just as surely conveyed with Charles Pikler floating a lovely delicate rendering of the central “canto populare” viola theme.

If the ensuing account of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements wasn’t the most subtle ever heard, it was notably for clarity and rhythmic acuity. Characteristically, the composer went back and forth between describing the symphony as non-programmatic music and attributing specific wartime scenes to its three movements. Slatkim consistently pointed up the rhythmic ingenity and spiky edge. The wryly satiric middle section was particularly well done with notably atmospheric flute and oboe solos by Mathieu Dufour and Eugene Izotov.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is as firmly ingrained in CSO history as any piece in the repertoire. Championed by Fritz Reiner and Sir Georg Solti, compatriots and colleagues of the Hungarian composer, the work has stayed high on the list of most-performed works at Orchestra Hall through the decades.

That’s not to say that it’s an easy piece to pull off, with myriad technical challenges and the dubious distinction of over-familiarity. There have been ample examples of noisy run-through renditions that fail to bring anything illuminating to this extraordinary score.

Such was not the case with the exhilarating performance presented by the CSO under Slatkin Thursday night. Rarely will such a warhorse sound so compelling and freshly minted.

It was not a case of doing anything particularly outre but just following the score and injecting dynamic tension and firm propulsive drive. Slatkin consistently underlined the felicities of the score drawing atmospheric gloom from cellos and bases in the opening bars. The bassoons nicely set the off-kilter jauntiness of the games of pairs and the searching solemnity of the Elegia was coveyed to unsettling effect, with Jennifer Gunn contributing a haunting piccolo solo.

Bartok’s thumbed nose at Shostakovich in the Intermezzo was for once, genuinely funny, with an uninhibited raspberry blast from the trombones. With Slatkin pushing the tempo to an extreme few orchestras can handle, the finale was thrilling in its velocity and clean articulation, the CSO responding with full commitment. The orchestra was at its considerable finest in all sections Thursday with the whirlwind accuracy of the string playing in the outer movements dazzling.

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

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