Chicago Philharmonic serves up a smart and spooky Halloween program

Tue Nov 01, 2016 at 3:15 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Scott Speck conducted the Chicago Philharmonic Sunday at the Harris Theater, Photo: Elliot Mandel
Scott Speck conducted the Chicago Philharmonic Sunday at the Harris Theater, Photo: Elliot Mandel

Few local orchestras present more imaginative concerts than the Chicago Philharmonic under current artistic director Scott Speck.

In an appearance Sunday afternoon at the Harris Theater, Speck conducted a chamber orchestra-sized Philharmonic in “Haunted Hearts,” a sort-of Halloween program that was a model of generational bridge-building. The musical lineup reflected, said Speck, “broken hearts and spooky love,” and was approachable enough to attractive families with young kids yet smart and discerning enough to intrigue adult concertgoers and romantic cynics.

Carl Philip Emanuel Bach’s passive-aggressive style made a fine leadoff to the afternoon with his Symphony No. 5 in B minor, one of the set of six string symphonies that burnish his credentials as the Peck’s Bad Boy of the Bach progeny. The symphony sounds jarringly modern even today, with its abrupt modulations, scurrying strings, and general weirdness. Apart from dragging a bit in the central Larghetto, Speck led an urgent and driving performance that brought out C.P.E.’s unique brand of aggressive dynamism.

Few instruments suggest ghostly matters more than the harpsichord. Following his discreet continuo in the Bach symphony—Jory Vinikour was stage front as solo protagonist in two featured works.

Jory Vinikour. Photo: Elliot Mandel
Jory Vinikour. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Vinikour has been a terrific addition to the local music scene since moving to Chicago, and it was good to hear him in a rare concertante role in Michael Nyman’s Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord.

While one has to be grateful for any addition to the scant modern repertory for the instrument, Nyman’s 1995 concerto is a wildly uneven work, underlining why Nyman’s star has dipped precipitously since his 1990s heyday. While the concerto affords myriad display opportunities for the soloist, the piece is overlong, built on simple rhythmic material and Nyman’s gray-hued Vivaldi-isms. The repetitive closing section is interminable, going several dozen ostinati too far.

Still, Vinikour proved a wonderful keyboard protagonist, throwing off the relentless rapid figurations and asymmetric riffs with stunning digital dexterity.

Vinikour was joined by Philharmonic concertmaster David Perry and principal flutist Marie Tachouet for some less-scary J.S. Bach, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. If the flute playing seemed a bit unsettled in the opening Allegro, the trio of soloists brought lyric intimacy and a striking depth of expression to the middle movement. The final movement was ideal–lilting and buoyant with nimble, gracious playing by Vinikour and fine support by the Philharmonic players under Speck.

Principal oboe Anne Bach floated a graceful dulcet solo in Astor Piazzolla’s brief Oblivion.

Two items related to classic horror cinema filled out the afternoon. Bernard Herrmann’s celebrated film score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho–composed entirely for strings–is distinctive music by any measure, and it was gratifying to encounter a suite of four selections in the concert hall, where Herrmann’s works should be heard more often.

Some grain in the Philharmonic strings brought an apt asperity to the Prelude’s angular, driving main theme, and Speck conveyed the urban loneliness of the spare music for “The City.” The famous shrieking high violins that accompany the murder of Janet Leigh in the film were aptly unsettling, even as its familiarity elicited chuckles from the audience.

Loosely inspired by the original 1958 film, The Fly starring Al (later David) Hedison and Vincent Price, Randall Woolf’s My Insect Bride is, says the composer, “an imaginary soundtrack to a horror film for humans and a love story for anthropods.” Woolf’s inspired piece of musical lunacy proved wholly delightful, mixing a heavy metal vibe with snarling brass, malign bass lines and, especially, the eerie and unearthly electronic sounds emanating from the Hohner Clavinet, played by the versatile Vinikour. Speck led the Philharmonic in a lively performance and the composer–on stage to assist with the electronics–shared in the applause.

The one miscalculation of the afternoon was to have dramatic readings of related items in between the musical selections. Speck and the Philharmonic like to present thematic concerts crisscrossing music with dance and theatre, understandable for the music director of the Joffrey Ballet.

But the fact is these genres rarely cohere effectively in live concert performances. Actor Tim Hopper brought Steppenwolf Theatre intensity to his assignment but many of the dramatic readings went on far too long, adding little to the proceedings apart from pushing the concert beyond the two-hour mark. The musical performances would have been enjoyable enough on their own.

The Chicago Philharmonic presents “Daring Duos” a program of music by Beethoven, Gluck, Vivaldi and Mendelssohn 3 p.m. February 12 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

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