Soprano Majeski sparks venturesome Civic program

Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Soprano Amanda Majeski performed arias from von Weber's "Der Freischütz" Monday night with the Civic Orchestra. Photo: Dario Acosta

The Civic Orchestra served up a tight, 105-minute generally German program with a bit of populist Berlioz thrown into the mix Monday night at Symphony Center.

The gifted young musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s training ensemble are clearly in fine shape this season, and played with polish, sensitivity and mostly precision throughout a demanding program.

The concert was also notable for featuring two up-and-coming musicians who distinguished themselves in the evening’s offbeat repertoire: conductor Erik Nielsen and soprano Amanda Majeski.

Nielsen is currently kapellmeister of Frankfurt Opera and the Iowa-born harpist-turned-conductor showed a sure and steady hand Monday night.  In Wagner’s Faust Overture — the only surviving fragment of a projected Faust symphony — Nielsen skillfully drew out the dark mystery of the atmospheric opening. At times the young conductor’s patient approach served to underline the episodic nature of Wagner’s early effort and needed to move a bit more, but in general this was a worthy performance of a rather ramshackle piece.

Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the American premiere of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra in 1913, which also marked the first performance of any of the composer’s orchestral music in the U.S. The reception was less than ecstatic: in the next day’s Chicago Examiner, the headline read, “Cubist Music is Hissed at Orchestra Hall.”

Schoenberg’s restless, angular miniatures sound almost quaint now, yet still pack a remarkable amount of music into a concise structure. The first section, Premonitions, proved a bit too laid-back for the music’s surging intensity, but Nielsen elsewhere elicited alert and attentive playing. The performance was at its best in the evocative movements, the Civic musicians conveying the shimmering delicacy and dark introspection of Things Past and Summer Morning by a Lake.

For a city that gave the U.S. premiere of the Schoenberg Five Pieces, it’s amazing to realize that Der Freischütz still has yet to be presented at the Lyric Opera.

Amanda Majeski, a member of the Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, performed Agathe’s two main arias from Carl Maria von Weber’s über-German opera. The tall, slender soprano possesses a striking voice with pure tone and flexibility, evenly — and seemingly effortlessly — produced throughout its range.

The Act 3 cavatina (Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle) was gracefully assayed but it was Majeski’s radiant rendering of the celebrated Act 2 scena and aria (Leise, leise) that provided the highlight of the evening. The soprano charted Agathe’s emotional continuum at her impending marriage from fear and misgiving to unalloyed joy, in an ardent and vividly characterized performance. When are we going to hear this wonderful cornerstone Romantic opera in Chicago?

The concert closed with excerpts from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (the usual three suspects plus the climactic Ride to the Abyss). Nielsen drew committed playing that — while not equally the Lyric Opera Orchestra’s gleam and swagger in last year’s performances — had ample fire and dedication with a jaunty Hungarian March and delicate, lilting Dance of the Sylphs.

The Civic musicians acquitted themselves well all evening with especially notable contributions from cellist Ruth Marshall and oboist Mia Lundgren.

Posted in Performances


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