De Waart, CSO bring it home with Adams’ resounding “Harmonielehre”

Thu Nov 12, 2015 at 1:08 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Edo de Waart conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Mozart and John Adams Wednesday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Edo de Waart conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Mozart and John Adams Wednesday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Possibly the greatest legacy of the Edo de Waart era at the San Francisco Symphony was his early advocacy for a young composer named John Adams. During his eight year-tenure (1977-1985) as music director, de Waart premiered and recorded several major Adams works.

Among them was Harmonielehre, which was the main attraction on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra program led by de Waart Wednesday night.

The Dutch conductor directed the world premiere of Harmonielehre in 1985 and made a celebrated recording (Nonesuch) that did much to make Adams’ name. It was heartening to see de Waart serve up such a convincing performance three decades after that debut.

Adams’ output of the past decade has been wildly uneven, leaning towards slick superficiality (Absolute Jest) or leaden, preachy political correctness (The Gospel According to the Other Mary). Harmonielehre, however, sounds just as fresh and engaging thirty years on, and remains one of Adams’ finest and most accomplished works.

Scored for massive forces and spanning 40 minutes, Harmonielehre is a symphony in all but name. Adams made a quantum creative leap forward with this work, artfully fusing the pulsing Minimalism of early works like Shaker Loops into a grander, deeper expression on a large-scale canvas.

There are few more arresting openings in American music than the fierce, accelerating E minor chords that launch the untitled opening movement. That thrusting contrapuntal energy remains consistent, with a rock edge to the rhythms allied to a striking lyricism, as with the soaring theme for cellos and the horn motif that passes to the violins.

The central movement, “The Anfortas Wound,” reflects a serious personal and creative crisis for Adams, manifest in the darkly tragic opening statement by cellos and basses. The somber, searching introspection of this pensive music was well conveyed by the orchestra under de Waart. A solo trumpet offers a ray of respite though the music ends in a huge, grinding discordant climax punctuated by timpani and two bass drums.

In the final movement, the shadows are dispersed with the cooling balm of high winds and a propulsive rocking energy, the churning ebb and flow charted by de Waart and the players with fine skill. The five horns blasting out a theme of optimistic resurgence is one of the great moments in American music, and the performance was rounded off with a triumphant and resounding coda.

Perhaps the performance of Harmonielehre offered by Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra this past summer had greater raw energy. Yet Wednesday’s CSO performance was more polished–one section horn apart–and de Waart’s long experience with Adams’ music was consistently palpable. The welter of cross-rhythms in the finale could have been more incisive, but de Waart led a well-paced and convincing reading that allowed the youthful audacity and whipcrack scoring of Adams’ score to speak powerfully for itself. The orchestra acquitted themselves superbly across all sections, not least Cynthia Yeh and the hard-working percussion brigade.

Augustin Hadelich performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 Wednesday with the CSO. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Augustin Hadelich performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 Wednesday with the CSO. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The abbreviated Afterwork Masterworks program began with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with Augustin Hadelich making his CSO debut.

The 31-year-old German violinist has been making the rounds of the world’s major orchestras in recent seasons, and Hadelich offered a trim, elegant account of Mozart’s final concerto for the instrument. Performing on the 1723 “Ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivari—on loan from the Stradivari Society of Chicago—the soloist’s tone was pure, refined, and unfailingly idiomatic if rather slender in tone. His playing stayed within Rococo parameters, apart from his own cadenzas, which added a welcome dash of modern asperity (though perhaps one time too many).

Still, at times one wanted greater individuality in the solo playing, as well as more varied expression and tonal coloring, and Hadelich’s poised yet cool Adagio flirted with blandness. He also performs with the orchestral violins in the introductions to each movement, a la Zukerman, which–whatever the historical justification—dilutes tension from solo entrances. The “Turkish” episode in the finale brought a spark of fire though Hadelich’s repeated mini-cadenzas impeded flow.

De Waart and the CSO lent fluent and alert support, though the conductor’s legato Mozart style wasn’t always ideally light on its feet.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday with the addition of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.; 312-294-3000.

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