Serkin’s Takemitsu elevates a watery mixed program from Mena, CSO

Fri May 17, 2013 at 11:16 am

By Michael Cameron

Peter Serkin performed Toru Takemitsu’s “riverrun” Thursday night with Juanjo Mena and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony Center’s “Rivers Festival” is in its third week of exploration of the significance of rivers in music and culture. The concept may seem a bit gimmicky, but there’s no denying that water in general, and rivers in particular, have been an endless source of inspiration for composers, artists, and writers. Even Mother Nature got the memo, contributing buckets of rain the past several weeks, leaving behind swollen rivers and flooded fields.

All of the events in May have included at least one homage to moving water, but the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert Thursday night was a virtual deluge, with all four works bearing some relationship to the wet stuff. Guest conductor Juanjo Mena deserves credit for conceptual purity, assembling a bracing mix of the familiar and the novel.

Composer Toru Takemitsu first made a splash in the 1960s as the first Asian composer to make a substantial mark in Western concert halls. His star has faded a bit since his passing in 1996, but he left behind a small handful of works that deserve a permanent place in the orchestral canon.

If his legacy endures, few artists will be as responsible as pianist Peter Serkin, the dedicatee and tireless champion of riverrun, a work for piano and orchestra receiving its first hearing in a CSO subscription concert.

It’s been said that riverrun is essentially French music from the pen of a Japanese composer. This assessment is not far off the mark, as overt influence of traditional Japanese music is scarce, while the sound world of Oliver Messiaen is conspicuous and unapologetic. Unlike most of the water works in this series, the reference in the title (the first word in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake) is more metaphorical and formal than pictorial. Not surprisingly, the reading by Serkin and Mena seemed authoritative and heartfelt, shot through with brilliant, glittering colors laid out with well-judged pacing and judicious balancing between competing orchestral subsections.

While the cross-cultural exchange between Japan and France is utterly legitimate and convincing in riverrun, the same cannot be said for Villa-Lobos’ Amazonas, a work even less familiar to Western audiences than the Takemitsu.

After reading the fascinating backstory to this 1917 tone poem/ballet suite, one could only wonder why this ambitious work by such a fine composer was not premiered until 12 years after completion, and is so poorly represented on disc and on the concert stage. Scarcely two minutes into this first performance ever by the CSO, the answer was clear.

It may seem grossly unfair to compare Amazonas to Stravinsky’s epoch-defining Rite of Spring that debuted four years earlier. Yet the analogy is unavoidable, so striking is the kinship and so overt are the cross-references. Among the parallels are Villa-Lobos’ evocation of “primitive” rhythms, his obsession with ostinatos, and his mania for pushing instrumental boundaries. The composer seemed particularly driven by orchestral gamesmanship, augmenting an already bulging orchestra with a viola d’amore and a “violinophone” (think soprano sax, a violin, and a tube of Super Glue).

Mena seemed to believe in the work, the CSO dove in dutifully, but their efforts went unrewarded. Amazonas may be worth dusting off once in a while, but only as a way to more fully appreciate Stravinsky’s achievement.

These rarities were balanced with two evergreen exemplars of the nexus of music and natural forces. Smetana’s “The Moldau” from Má Vlast was leisurely, relaxed, sensitive and tidy almost to a fault.

Likewise, it was hard to quibble with any specific interpretive choices in Mena’s account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”). Tempos were uniformly sensible and phrasing was underlined with caution and restraint. Here and there special moments emerged, including the violins’ ravishing opening bars of the first movement and sinewy long lines in the finale, as well as the lower strings’ rowdy evocation of angry storm clouds in the fourth movement.

Yet for a symphony that often puts winds in the spotlight, Mena seemed reluctant to allow them to emerge, and the entirely predictable principal horn lapses surfaced once again in the third and fifth movements. It was not the most engrossing or inventive Pastoral by a long shot, but it was nevertheless distinctly pleasurable, especially as spring was making a late but welcome entrance.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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