A tour de force Chicago Symphony debut by a different Barenboim

Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Michael Barenboim

Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony: that’s a combination we haven’t experienced in Chicago in more than seven years.

That drought ended at Thursday night’s CSO concert, not with the orchestra’s former music director, but with his son, violinist Michael Barenboim making his Chicago Symphony debut.

Looking remarkably like his father when he was a young prodigy himself, the 27-year old Barenboim walked out to warm applause in a contemporary-styled black tuxedo with a triangular black tie.

The repertoire choice was a daring one: the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, a tour de force cornerstone of contemporary music that because of its fiendish difficulty and atonality is not presented as often as such a modern masterpiece deserves to be. Kudos to Barenboim for bringing it to Chicago in a stunning performance.

Not only was Barenboim up to the extraordinary technical challenges of the work, but its musical challenges as well. Double stops at the extreme edges of the violin’s range were brought off with remarkable transparency and always with a robust sound, no small feat.

His harmonics were beautifully rendered, his pizzicato delivered with pizzazz and verve. His bow would produce a poignant and introspective tone as well as a full and muscularly vibrato, wherever the music allowed his wide dynamic palette.

Asher Fisch, a one-time protégé and former conducting assistant to Daniel Barenbiom, stepped in for an indisposed Pierre Boulez, courageously keeping the same program.

Fisch lent wonderful support to his musical brother, as it were, also unwaveringly supplied from an orchestra consisting in substantial part of players hand-picked by its former music director, all of whom played this virtuoso and difficult work with immense heart.

At work’s end, orchestra members were unanimous in applauding the soloist vigorously with their hands rather than their bows, a rare and emotional collegial display.

Asher Fisch

After a break, Fisch and the orchestra turned to the Adagio from the Mahler Tenth Symphony, the last music Mahler wrote. This movement is the only section both composed and orchestrated before his death, although others have attempted to complete the work and such versions have been occasionally performed by the CSO.

Boulez has always preferred to leave the piece as the unfinished torso that it is, and given the context of the program he devised attempting to demonstrate “the Wagner effect,” it was particularly effective. Unlike the Schoenberg concerto which had taken Wagner’s hyper-chromaticism over the tonal cliff completely, Maher was a step beyond Wagner to a tonal ambiguity that still had wisps of diatonic gravity. Fisch led the orchestra in an introspective, dynamically nuanced rendering.

Neither Mahler or Schoenberg would have been possible without Wagner, and thus it was quite fitting that in addition to hearing mature, late Schoenberg alongside of Mahler’s last music, that the concert was crowned with some of the last music that Wagner wrote, the opening Prelude to Parsifal, his final opera (called by Wagner a “stage-consecrating music drama”).

Fisch is known for his Wagner, having conducted the Seattle Opera’s “Ring” cycle as its principal conductor and just having conducting Parsifal at the Met. He did not disappoint. The Prelude to Act 1 was rendered in an ethereal manner that was well-balanced and nuanced. Fisch allowed the music to breathe through the silences and suspend the conventional cessation of time and blur the distinction between the religious and the aesthetic.

The program opened with a serviceable performance of Wagner’s birthday/Christmas gift to his wife Cosima, the Siegfried Idyll, which was first performed on the staircase of their home.

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

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One Response to “A tour de force Chicago Symphony debut by a different Barenboim”

  1. Posted Mar 21, 2013 at 8:32 am by jizungu

    This query perhaps comes too late: Can anyone identify the mesmerizing piece that Barenboim played as an encore on Friday the 15th?

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