CSO, van Zweden offer taut, energetic performances

Thu May 17, 2012 at 12:33 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jaap van Zweden conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night in music of Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams and Beethoven. Photo: Bert Hulselmans

The schedule for this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts has been reshuffled with all three concerts moved to midweek to prevent any unwonted unpleasantries between audience members and NATO summit protesters.

In recent seasons, Jaap van Zweden has become one of the CSO’s most reliable podium guests, and the Dutch conductor led a trio of taut, dynamic performances Wednesday night as part of the Afterwork Masterworks series.

The evening led off with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony. The composer’s String Quartet No. 8 is one of those rare chamber works that seems to acquire even greater depth when heard in transcription for larger forces, and Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement for string orchestra made a riveting impact.

Cast in five unbroken movements, the Eighth Quartet is outwardly about the devastation wrought by World War II, but, as always with Shostakovich, the atmosphere of brooding tragedy seems as much about the enemy within as without. From the dark desolation of the opening Largo, van Zweden led a masterful performance, as one might expect from the former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The conductor drew knife-edged intensity in the frantic energy of the second movement, and the unsettling danse macabre expression of the ensuing Allegretto was atmospherically conveyed. Van Zweden drew a striking range of dynamic nuance in the concluding sections putting across the depth of feeling and bleak introspection. The playing of the CSO strings was first-class, with fine solo moments by Robert Chen’s plaintive violin and Kenneth Olsen’s melancholy cello.

Gene Pokorny

The evening’s centerpiece was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto. Not played by the orchestra in 34 years, it offered a rare solo opportunity for CSO tubist Gene Pokorny. A member of the orchestra since 1989, Pokorny has long provided yeoman duty in a low-profile role, with an instrument whose presence is felt as often as it is heard.

The 12-minute concerto showcases the tuba’s bumptious and lyrical elements and Pokorny conveyed both delightfully, from his rounded, subterranean low notes to his jazz-like swagger in the cadenza and nimble agility in the finale. The central Romanza is one of VW’s most heart-easing inspirations — a virtual emblem of the English pastoral school— and Pokorny’s playing was as nuanced and expressive as any top-flight violinist or opera singer. The soloist received a hearty, well-deserved ovation from his colleagues as well as the audience. (And any musician who puts in his official bio that he is a card-carrying member of the Three Stooges Fan Club deserves applause.)

The evening closed with a notably energetic account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. After a weighty and spacious introduction, the balletic van Zweden and CSO were off to the races with a fleet account of the opening Vivace. Likewise, the conductor took a more flowing tempo for the Allegretto that sheared off any ponderous quality, and a crackling pace for an exhilarating Presto.

I’m not sure van Zweden’s underlining of the brass in the whirlwind finale was an inspired idea — the rhythmic interjections are not that interesting in themselves and at times tended to swamp the strings’ dancing bravura. Still this was an exciting and magnificently played performance from van Zweden and the orchestra, some horn burbles in the opening movement apart.

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

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