Harpist provides a highlight with CSO as the clock ticks on contract

Fri Sep 25, 2015 at 11:59 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Xavier de Maistre performed Ginastera's Harp Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Xavier de Maistre performed Ginastera’s Harp Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

After an opening week of galas and standard repertory, it would be nice to report that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra got down to serious business with its opening week of subscription concerts.

Rather, Riccardo Muti led the orchestra Thursday night in a travelogue evening dominated by orchestral showpieces, a lightish program that would have been more suitable for last weekend’s Symphony Ball gala. While the performances were as energized and committed as one would expect from this partnership, the cumulative effect was that of a meal of appetizers and dessert without a main course.

But first, something completely different happened. Before the concert began CSO bass Stephen Lester, chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee, spoke of the Chicago Symphony’s long and venerable history and thanked the audience for their long-standing support. Lester mentioned that the orchestra has been playing without a contract since September 15 and said that he and his colleagues hoped it would be resolved soon so the CSO musicians could continue to bring music to Chicago.

This possibly unprecedented curtain speech by a musicians union rep during a contract dispute won clear approval by Muti, who gave Lester an unambiguous “ok” sign as he took the podium.

Two Spanish-flavored showpieces by French composers flanked the program. Muti led off with a brash and exuberant Espana, his festive take on Emmanuel Chabrier’s Iberian musical postcard  also putting across the charm and hairpin dynamic curves.

The clear highlight of the evening came with Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto and the CSO debut of the soloist Xavier de Maistre.

Ginastera was notably prolific with an oeuvre that includes six concertos. The Argentinian composer labored for eight years on his Harp Concerto until he was satisfied, and it is among his best works in the genre. While the concerto is stronger on nocturnal Impressionism than drama or structural rigor, Ginastera deftly blends virtuosity and lyricism and the tricky balancing of the harp against a rambunctious orchestra is handled with great skill and flair.

The handsome French harpist’s looks don’t hurt his appeal, as witness his current high-profile contract with Sony Classics. De Maistre is clearly the real thing, a musician of seamless technique and poetic sensibility. Playing a gorgeous Lyon & Healy instrument, he brought urgent driving energy to the angular bonhomie of the opening movement and rhythmic incisiveness to the motoric finale with its Bernsteinian syncopations.

Yet most impressive was the delicacy of the harpist’s playing in the more interior sections. De Maistre conjured a wide and nuanced array of dynamics in the pensive pointillism of the slow movement, conveying the atmospheric mystery of Ginastera in his nochemusik of the Pampas mode. Muti and the orchestra supplied their young soloist with alert, well calibrated support.

In this 125th anniversary season, the orchestra is performing several works that the CSO premiered over its long history. This week’s item was Gustave Charpentier’s Impressions of Italy, which CSO founder Theodore Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of at the Auditorium Theater in 1893.

Charpentier enjoyed enormous success in his lifetime with his opera Louise, which has largely vanished from the repertory apart from its soaring aria “Depuis le jour.” The French composer’s Impressions of Italy likewise became a regular repertory work in the early decades of the 20th century but has not been revived by the CSO since Frederick Stock last conducted it in 1937.

Once every 78 years seems just about right. Unlike Louise, which is full of charm and attractive music, Impressions of Italy is a musty artifact, with Charpentier’s salonish suite of Italian pictures sounding more patronizing than affectionate today. Respighi brought greater alacrity and idiomatic punch to his Italian tone poems and Ferde Grofe did the mule ride thing to more charming effect in his Grand Canyon Suite.

The CSO gave this music due verve and dedication, yet even Muti couldn’t make a convincing case for this slight relic, laying on the volume in the final “Napoli” section. Ken Olsen’s elegant cello solo had just the right amount of schmaltzy charm, though Li-Kuo Chang’s offstage viola solo was less surefooted.

Ravel’s inescapable Bolero closed the program, and managed to sound almost subtle after Charpentier’s bombastic finale. Seated front and center, Cynthia Yeh kept unerring control on the snare drum in Ravel’s 18-minute slow crescendo and the CSO wind soloists all scored in their moments in the spotlight.

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

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Harpist provides a highlight with CSO as the clock ticks on contract”

  1. Posted Sep 25, 2015 at 3:46 pm by Frank Monnelly

    Daniel Barenboim conducted Bolero with the CSO early on during his tenure as Music Director. What struck me about that performance was that he got the orchestra started then let them orchestra follow the beat and tempo of the snare drum. As I recall he only came in at the end during the key change from C major to E major and end the piece.

    I thought at the time that he really trusts the Orchestra and its players to do their job.
    Maestro Muti was more involved in the performance. Both performances were terrific. My comment is not that one conductor is better than the other, just different.

  2. Posted Sep 26, 2015 at 8:02 am by Tod Verklärung

    Mr. Lester’s speech and Mr. Muti’s program choices bring up some questions. First, rumor has it that there were many empty seats for the concert, and many tickets remain available for its repetitions. Might “Bolero” have less draw than the program planners expected? And, if such programming doesn’t come close to filling the house, should the CSO be advised to reconsider the conservatism of Muti’s repertoire choices?

    Second, if Mr. Muti was willing to give Mr. Lester a chance to speak for the players in the midst of contract negotiations, is it fair to expect that no work stoppage will occur while the Maestro is in town? If so, were I Seymon Bychkov, the conductor to lead after Muti departs in another week, I might not book my plane reservations quite yet.

  3. Posted Sep 29, 2015 at 8:59 am by Spencer Cortwright

    Thursday’s Bolero concert sold well, the others might have been less so, but that is not a programming problem! Maybe they should have had 3 performances rather than 4, but the real reason some seats were unsold likely is the great summer weather we’ve had and so many other things going on, especially outdoors!

  4. Posted Sep 29, 2015 at 9:47 pm by Noah

    I don’t understand. You complain about too much standard rep for the season. Then in a week with very much UN-standard rep (aside from Bolero) you criticize it as not serious enough. Does next week’s Hindemith and Prokofiev satisfy? What would meet your definition of a well programmed season?

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