Chicago Philharmonic energetically serves up Beethoven and two concertos

Mon Apr 23, 2012 at 9:32 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Scott Speck conducted the Chicago Philharmonic Sunday night at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston

The Chicago Philharmonic’s concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall Sunday evening was a showcase for some talented individuals as well as for some highly energized orchestral playing under the direction of guest conductor Scott Speck.

In a well-crafted program, the opener set the pace. Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture is a brief and concise microcosm of the composer’s style. It is also a sonic picture of the opera’s emotional trajectory and serves as a real curtain raiser. Placing the overture at the top of the program was a neat way to anticipate the main work of the evening, the Beethoven Symphony No. 7, which was to make up the second half.

In the meantime, the first half was rounded out by two very different showpieces for solo instruments, the rarely heard Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto and Saint-Saens’ evergreen Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin.

The most intriguing piece of the evening was the Tuba Concerto by Vaughan Williams—the first of its kind ever written and a short, uncomplicated work in a bygone style. Possessed of a combination of symphonic ambition and pastoral indolence the three brief movements flash by in less than fifteen minutes.

Lyric Opera and Chicago Philharmonic tubist Rex Martin, playing on the very instrument that premiered the work in 1954, was a master of the technical difficulties inherent in making the ungainly instrument dance—and sing in the second movement Romanza—above the orchestral texture without sounding absurd. Martin dispatched the challenging and energetic finale with assurance and the work ended abruptly but satisfyingly.

The Saint-Saens work, written for the composer’s friend, Pablo de Sarasate, is one of the composer’s most popular violin pieces and it was nicely realized by Lyric Opera concertmaster Robert Hanford. The technically assured violinist has a silvery tone that works well with the work’s high-flying themes. While not a larger-than-life virtuoso, Handford had all the notes under control as well as the piece’s emotional dynamics, which mutate rapidly throughout the eventful ten minutes.

For the second half of the program conductor Speck tackled the Beethoven Seventh, and as an introduction invited a hearing specialist, Brian Urban of the Advanced Hearing and Balance Center, onstage to comment briefly on how hearing disorders can affect personality as well as have an effect on a composer’s musical output. While only partly relevant to the composition as such, the symphony’s heavily accented score was a nice case in point illustrating the dynamic textures favored by the hard-of-hearing.

As for the performance of the music, there were some technical issues at times, and intonation problems, all the more noticeable due to the work’s familiarity and the clarity of the acoustic, but the overall impression was one of vigor and dynamic impulsiveness.

The Allegretto second movement is the heart of the work, and here the funereal ostinato seemed a bit sluggish and lacking in tension. It rose to an upbeat conclusion however and the orchestra moved right into a rough-and-ready account of the complexities of the Presto finale. The dance rhythms were attacked brusquely and there was a strong forward propulsion, which carried the piece to a triumphant conclusion.

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