Harth-Bedoya leads CSO in rousing Dvorak and Mussorgsky showpieces

Fri Dec 13, 2013 at 1:41 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the CSO in music of Dvorak, Chavez and Mussorgsky Thursday night.

An offbeat musical Baedecker tour is on the itinerary at this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, with a pair of Czech and Mexican rarities alongside a cornerstone showpiece from Russia by way of France.

There are not many orchestral works of Antonin Dvorak that remain neglected—unlike his numerous unperformed operas (apart from Rusalka, which will see its belated Lyric Opera premiere in February). Yet Dvorak wrote many overtures beyond the omnipresent Carnival, so kudos to Harth-Bedoya for exhuming the Husitska Overture, last played by the CSO in 1991 under Rafael Kubelik.

Composed in 1883 for the reopening of Prague’s National Theatre after a fire, the patriotic work incorporates two Hussite songs, which Dvorak mines with characteristic flair and ingenuity. Harth-Bedoya led a notably well-paced reading with superb playing by the orchestra. The Peruvian conductor negotiated the tempo changes deftly and allowed the warmth of Dvorak’s lyricism to bloom while bringing stentorian strength to the main theme, particularly in the rousing coda.

One dismaying aspect of current CSO programming is the short shrift given to music of North America. So it’s laudable that this week the orchestra is presenting the local premiere of Carlos Chavez’s Piano Concerto.

The Mexican composer enjoyed much high-profile advocacy in his lifetime, not least from Aaron Copland, who remained a lifelong friend. (Chavez also conducted the CSO in his music in 1942.) His star has dimmed since his death in 1978, though Chavez’s brief Sinfonia India is often trotted out when orchestras want to display their sensitivity to musical “diversity.”

Completed in 1940, Chavez’s Piano Concerto is characteristic, with its angular folk themes and washes of Latin percussion. There are some moments of beguiling lyricism in the slow movement and undeniable fervor and excitement in the hard-driving finale.

Yet, even with the best of intentions, ultimately the Chavez concerto is not a convincing or successful piece. The dense and dogged first movement is especially problematic and seems to go on forever, sounding like second-rate Prokofiev without the swagger or originality. Even with the moments of local color and glittering solo passages, the thickly scored outer movements prove showy but undeniably empty. The slow movement has a surface attractiveness but likewise tends to meander and lose focus; like many second-rate Italian operas, Chavez’s lyricism seems on the verge of a memorable tune that never quite arrives. Performing the three movements attacca Thursday night added to the sense of long-winded formlessness.

Jorge Federico Osorio
Jorge Federico Osorio

Few complaints can be had about the quality of the performance. Soloist Jorge Federico Osorio recorded the Chavez concerto earlier this year for the Cedille label and provided impressive advocacy in this belated Chicago premiere. Perhaps at times a bit more fire and intensity would have helped sell the music, yet Osorio, a Highland Park resident and regular CSO collaborator, handled the demanding and nearly constant piano part with sensitivity and aplomb. Harth-Bedoya and the orchestra lent equally committed and rhythmically tight support.

The clear highlight of the evening was Mussorgsky’s inescapable Pictures at an Exhibition, performed in the standard Ravel orchestration.

Yet for all the familiarity of this Franco-Russian confection, Harth-Bedoya drew a notably fresh, acutely colored and iridescent performance that brought out the originality and resourcefulness of Ravel’s scoring. From Christopher Martin’s forthright trumpet solo in the opening Promenade, the CSO principals were at their finest including Gene Pokorny’s weighty yet agile tuba in “Bydlo” and Daniel Gingrich’s horn playing throughout.

Trombones and horns were aptly sepulchral in a creepy “Catacombs,” and the witch Baba-Yaga took to the air in exciting fashion. The performance was rounded off with a majestic and sonorous “Great Gate of Kiev.” Harth-Badoya kept things balanced and in scale, avoiding bombast and ensuring that the Orthodox wind chants made the right contrast. Cynthia Yeh’s tolling whacks on the huge bell added an idiomatic metallic resonance to the exultant coda.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday. 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. cso.org; 313-294-3000.

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