Koopman, CSO serve up a bracing program of (mostly) Classical and Baroque rarities

Fri May 11, 2012 at 11:00 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ton Koopman conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Center.

This is one of those split-assignment weeks for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Half the musicians are playing youth concerts and the other half were on stage at Symphony Center where guest conductor Ton Koopman led a program for smaller forces Thursday night. But with Yo-Yo Ma appearing in his second concerto performance in five days, it’s unlikely that many audience members felt greatly shortchanged.

Ma has long shown equal facility with Baroque and Classical music and Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major was one of his earliest successes in performance and on disc.

If last week’s fresh and spirited performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor largely showed the popular cellist at his best, Thursday night’s Haydn at Symphony Center proved more of a mixed bag.

Ma is an old hand in this repertoire and it’s clearly music he loves and enjoys performing, even playing along with the orchestra in the extended introduction. Yet while he takes an aptly Classical view, at times his tonal palette seemed over-refined to the point of lacking a firm presence. One can admire the hairpin dynamic turns in running passages but much of the barely audible hovering about sounded mannered when a more straightforward approach would have served the music better.

The Adagio was more successful with Ma’s burnished, singing tone more in synch with the score and the Rondo offered the right blend of light virtuosity and galant high spirits, albeit with more imprecise attacks and errant intonation than one expects from this artist. Despite the virtues of Ma’s performance it felt a bit pallid and self-regarding, next to the spell-binding take on the same work by the young Russian Pavel Gomziakov in a spectacular CSO debut a year ago. Koopman and the orchestra provided alert accompaniment though this was very much a soloist-led performance.

CSO programming tends to neglect Haydn symphonies, so it was a nice touch that Koopman preceded the concerto with an early Haydn work in the genre, No. 6 in D major, Le Matin.

Part of a trio of Morning, Noon and Night symphonies (Nos. 6-8), there’s not much programmatic painting in the work, apart from the brief opening sunrise passage but ample buoyant melody and rhythmic curve-balls in typical Haydn style. Koopman didn’t always bring out the musical wit with a smile, but he led a lithe and engaging performance. Mathieu Dufour seems to be away more weeks than he’s here, so it was good to finally have him back to breeze through the showy flute obbligato passages, and Robert Chen and John Sharp served up equally stylish violin and cello solos.

Most people likely came to hear Yo-Yo Ma Thursday, but the offbeat second half of the program provided the greatest musical interest with a bracing confection of rarities.

In his first CSO stand in six years, the bearded, energetic Dutchman — a justly celebrated organist and harpsichordist as well as conductor — drew vital, historically informed yet unpedantic performances.

Pietro Antonio Locatelli left us relatively few works yet his five-minute overture Introduttione teatrale in G major opened the second half in galvanic style with Koopman drawing a bristling, whipcrack performance.

“Chaos,” the prologue from Jean-Fery Rebel’s ballet The Elements still sounds startlingly modern. A clear inspiration for the opening section of Haydn’s The Creation, Rebel employs grinding dissonances and jarring timpani attacks to depict the universe’s metaphysical disorder before water, air and earth (flutes, bassoon and strings) are brought into tonal alignment. Koopman and the CSO served up an evocative performance that powerfully put across the originality and imagination of Rebel’s music.

It was a nice bit of programming top-spin to have the evening close with an early Mozart symphony.

There aren’t many Mozart symphonies left unplumbed by the CSO, but Koopman managed to dig one up with No. 20 in D major, K.133, heard in its first CSO performance.  Written at 16, the concise work doesn’t display the individuality shortly to come, but is crafted with the young Mozart’s usual polish and panache and its lively Haydnesque spirit deftly fit the program. Koopman and the orchestra delivered an ebullient reading with more inspired flute work by Dufour, and the airy joviality of the finale was especially nicely done.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Narek Hakhnazarayan will be the cello soloist Saturday night. cso.org; 313-294-3000.

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