Metzmacher makes mixed impression in CSO’s Russian program

Fri Dec 05, 2014 at 1:59 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ingo Metzmacher led the CSO in a Russian program Thursday night.
Ingo Metzmacher led the CSO in a Russian program Thursday night.

One could hardly have stage-managed the conclusion of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 more serendipitously. As audience members filed out of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert on to Michigan Avenue  Thursday night with the noisy coda still ringing in their ears, they were confronted with hundreds of demonstrators protesting the recent deaths by police in Ferguson, Missouri and New York.

Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, subtitled “The Year 1905,” was written in 1957, a time when the composer was in a creative slump as well as wary of upsetting the apple cart with the Soviet cultural commissars following the success of his Tenth Symphony.

Yet while it is a characteristic work, it’s hard not to feel that the Eleventh is not among Shostakovich’s stronger pieces. In addition to his drawing on several Russian songs for thematic material, the Communist Party dues paying of the subject matter sounds even more empty than usual, and one feels Shostakovich reworking tropes from previous works, not always successfully. The Eleventh remains a meandering and unconvincing mix of tub-thumping bombast and weak inspiration.

Returning for his first CSO stand in a decade, Ingo Metzmacher proved a mostly solid advocate in this intractable work. He controlled the long first movement with skill if not always the requisite tension and intensity, building to the raucous clamor of the ear-splitting climax.

Without making a case for the symphony as a neglected masterwork, Metzmacher brought out the contrast of the middle movements alertly. While the finale is the weakest of the entire work, the German conductor built up the would-be revolutionary fervor to a resounding climax. The musicians played with customary commitment, particularly the hard-working percussion brigade. Scott Hostetler’s melancholy English horn solo provided a welcome moment of sonic relief.

The first half of the evening was similarly mixed.

It may have been a bit over-ambitious to program Stravinsky’s Petrushka on the same night as an hour-long Shostakovich symphony. Petrushka is one of Stravinsky’s most brilliant and envelope-pushing works, the ballet as revolutionary in its more subtle fashion as the flashier Rite of Spring that followed.

One would never guess it, however, from the streamlined, garrulous performance Metzmacher led Thursday night. Rarely will one hear Stravinsky’s uber-Russian ballet of the title tormented puppet played with so little drama, expressive nuance or humanity.

Time and again, Metzmacher just seemed to skim the surface of the score. There was little of the strangeness or creepy factor of the ballet apparent in this casual, rather dull traversal, Metzmacher rarely elicited quiet playing or careful balancing, let alone illuminating Stravinsky’s scoring felicities. Clarinetist Stephen Williamson and trumpet Christopher Martin provided fleeting bright spots and the CSO played with customary polish and professionalism in this somewhat dutiful performance.

With the hall bedecked with holiday wreathes and bunting, the mini-suite of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker made a seasonally apt opener. Metzmacher led a vibrant and colorful rendition with a lithe Overture, fizzing Trepak and piquant March with fine flute playing by Thomas Robertello.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-284-3000.

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