A gifted young composer apart, few sparks fly with de Waart and CSO

Fri Mar 27, 2015 at 3:24 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Edo de Waart conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. File photo: Todd Rosenberg
Edo de Waart conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. File photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra enjoys such a consistent roster of inspirational guest conductors–people like Haitink, Dutoit, Salonen, and Malkki–that when there is a lack of artistic rapport between the podium and the orchestra it tends to be jarringly apparent.

Such, unfortunately, seems to be the case with Edo de Waart. The veteran Dutch conductor, has enjoyed a distinguished career and one is grateful that the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s music director has been available to fill in for ailing colleagues in Chicago.

But his recent appearances with the CSO have invariably been disappointments and such was the case again Thursday night.

The evening’s highlight came in the opening minutes with a genuine rarity at CSO concerts in the Riccardo Muti era—music by a young American composer who is not named Mason Bates.

Michael Ippolito’s Nocturne for Orchestra was inspired by Joan Miro’s painting of the same name. The composer wrote the work in 2010 for flute, violin and piano, orchestrating it the following year.

"Nocturne" by Joan Miro, 1940.
“Nocturne” by Joan Miro, 1940.

In his program note, Ippolito says he was inspired not just by the languid evening atmosphere suggested by the title but by the more wild and unhinged aspects reflected in Bartok’s “night music” and Miro’s painting.

Ippolito’s Nocturne packs a lot into just ten minutes, beginning in a relaxed pastoral vein with two flutes warbling against tense pedal points in the strings. The music’s flowing, Impressionistic style leads to plaintive piano notes from a distance, as if a hazy nostalgic memory.

The pace accelerates and the music becomes more sharply rhythmic and aggressive with a jagged motif for trombones, which builds to a resounding climax. The tempo slows again and the music quietens with a gentle melody for solo violin before the sound ebbs away to nothing.

Nocturne is scored for a large orchestra, and the 30-year-old Tampa native—currently teaching at Texas State University—writes with confidence and great skill for vast forces. De Waart and the CSO gave Ippolito’s work a fine local premiere, and the delighted young composer took the stage to share in the applause.

Orion Weiss is a gifted musician but his CSO subscription debut in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 never quite seemed to gel Thursday night. His intimate playing felt a size too small for one of Mozart’s most grandly scaled concertos (including pairs of horns, trumpets and timpani).

Orion Weiss
Orion Weiss

The Ohio native’s playing was accurate but overall proved fussy and faceless. The Andante was the most successful movement, poised and elegant, though Weiss undermined his own efforts with distracting physical mannerisms, wagging his head and making strange, guppy-like movements with his mouth.

In the Allegretto finale, Weiss’s entrance was so much faster than de Waart’s orchestral introduction, it seemed for a moment that he decided to play a different piece entirely. Soloist and conductor eventually got on track but this was prosaic Mozart, and de Waart’s sleepy-time accompaniment didn’t add much charm or sparkle. When a Mozart concerto finale seems too long, there’s a problem somewhere. The conductor’s odd rearrangement of the players onstage has no discernible balancing or musical benefit.

Brahms’ Third Symphony concluded the evening, and here too the performance was no better than routine, hovering between respectable and stolid. There was nothing terribly wrong with de Waart’s tempos or interpretive choices but nothing particularly distinctive either. A crucial lack of fire and energy hobbled the performance with a concomitant want of tonal refinement. There was some belated vitality at the start of the finale, but de Waart’s lack of grip and overall focus soon lost the thread again, and the diminuendo to the peaceful coda had little resonance or impact.

The CSO performed with its usual professionalism but ensemble was less than airtight and the playing felt decidedly dutiful and disengaged. One could hardly blame the musicians for planning their vacation itineraries with so little inspiration coming from the podium.

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

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One Response to “A gifted young composer apart, few sparks fly with de Waart and CSO”

  1. Posted Mar 29, 2015 at 6:32 am by Robert Eisenberg

    Dear Mr. Johnson,
    Thank you for your fine reviews and the honest and perceptive review above. Perhaps Mr. de Waart and Mr. Orion read the review before the Saturday night performance my wife and I went to last night.

    The performance was fine, up to the standard that you quite rightly ask of the Symphony. Indeed, to my mind, the Mozart was superb. Mr. Orion played it as well as I have heard it in my 39 years as a subscriber.

    The Brahms was the best performance by a Dutch orchestra ever, I imagine! What I mean of course is that de Waart had the orchestra playing in the warm, wonderful, calm style that might be called Dutch. It is not the way I prefer Brahms, but it was to be admired, I think. It is interesting to wonder what Brahms would have said listening to absolute perfection in the strings: every player, every note, exactly in tune, exactly in place, absolutely together. Perhaps he expected the harshness of a spread of intonation and actually used it to create the feeling he wanted. Ahhhh, but such are the problems of perfection! By the way, the perfection
    extended to the cellos and double basses, as de Waart noted with his special ‘call out’ to the basses.

    One should also add that the French horn work was equal to Gail Williams at her best, even better than Dale Clevenger for his last twenty years (fuller rounder tone to my taste), the tympani was extraordinary (albeit not particularly important), and Stephen Williamson continues to astonish.

    Thanks for your frank criticism which clearly helped motivate the extraordinary performance we heard last night.

    Ever yours
    with thanks and admiration

    Bob Eisenberg

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