Runnicles, CSO team up for a fresh, majestic Mahler 5

Fri Oct 10, 2014 at 12:56 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Donald Runnicles conducted the CSO in Mahler's Symphony No. 5 Thursday night. Photo: Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles conducted the CSO in Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 Thursday night. Photo: Simon Pauly

This week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program had already threatened to get lost in the shuffle—sandwiched in between Riccardo Muti’s opening three weeks and the players departing to join their music director on a five-city, nine-concert European tour. The news that conductor Jaap van Zweden cancelled due to a recurring shoulder injury didn’t seem to help matters.

Fortunately, the CSO was able to engage the gifted Donald Runnicles as podium guest and, as Thursday night’s fresh, probing performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 showed, the music-making was in very good hands, indeed.

The Scottish conductor—music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony—hasn’t led a CSO subscription concert in 14 years. Yet one would never guess that from the responsive, highly charged performance served up by Runnicles and the orchestra.

Equally noted for his work in the opera pit as well as the concert platform, Runnicles is one of those conductors who seems at his best with a large canvas–as with his richly textured 2011 performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle at San Francisco Opera.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is nearly as much of a CSO party piece as the composer’s First, and with several memorable performances and five recordings (CD and vid) over the years, one would think it difficult to invest a Chicago Mahler 5 with a new point of view.

Yet in the very first bars Runnicles–a rare left-handed baton gun—managed to put his own stamp on Mahler’s five-movement journey from darkness to light. Following Christopher Martin’s clarion trumpet fanfare, Runnicles set a very stately pace for the main theme, emphasizing that this is a funeral dirge and bringing out the subdued tragedy. Runnicles clearly knew where he wanted to go in this epic work and sustained tension with great skill, motivating the players to follow him.

The second movement was taken slightly faster than usual, providing sharp contrast with its restless agitated quality, the brass chorale at the coda providing a brief burst of sunlight. Yet Runnicles also found a striking delicacy throughout the score, as with the cello section’s theme in the second movement or the gracious Viennese lilt in the alternating sections of the central Scherzo.

The famous Adagietto was arguably the high point—inner and glowing with uncommon gentleness of expression, the melancholy traceries gently evoked and most beautifully played by the CSO strings. The performance was rounded off with a majestic and exhilarating finale that avoided peaking too soon yet built inexorable momentum until the final joyous yawp.

The CSO can be a tough bunch for non-regular podium guests but they clearly were in synch with Runnicles and gave him everything he asked for, with especially fine contributions from Chris Martin, hornist Daniel Gingrich and the aforementioned strings. The wind playing was inspired, even with most of the principals off, including Mathieu Dufour who apparently decided not to play his final scheduled Chicago performances. (When first-chair players start believing they’re too good to perform with guest conductors, that’s a problem.)

The resounding ovation and cheers were long and well-deserved and Runnicles generously shared the applause with the CSO musicians, individually and collectively. Let’s not wait 14 years again before inviting this fine conductor back to Chicago.

Robert Chen was the evening’s soloist as planned but with a change of vehicle, the CSO concertmaster performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, which replaced the originally scheduled Bartok Rhapsodies.

Thursday’s performance may not have been the most individual one will ever hear of this fiddle warhorse, yet Chen’s polished and elegant musicianship provided its own rewards. His silvery, pure tone suited the lyrical side of the work, and if the Andante was rather cool in expression, the second theme of the opening movement was sensitively rendered. There was ample excitement in the finale, as Chen vaulted with ease through the technical hurdles, Runnicles and the soloist’s colleagues lending close-knit support.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Runnicles, CSO team up for a fresh, majestic Mahler 5”

  1. Posted Oct 11, 2014 at 4:31 pm by Ann Raven

    I certainly hope that Maestro Runnicles will return to the helm of the CSO very soon! The Thursday evening performance was exciting. He is a masterful conductor, cerebral, sensitive and able to connect emotionally with the music. I couldn’t have liked it more!

  2. Posted Oct 13, 2014 at 6:07 pm by cynthia

    Having just moved to chicago from SF, I’ve seen Runnicles many, many times with the SF Opera (including the Ring performance referenced above). I’m also a bit of a Mahler fanatic. I loved the performance on Sunday. Heard things in the piece that I haven’t heard before. Loved the operatic pacing and gestures. Thought the orchestra sounded great. Much, much better, in fact, than they usually sound with Muti. Agree. Bring him back for more.

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