Bramwell Tovey excels with colorful showpieces in downtown CSO debut

Sat Feb 04, 2017 at 10:21 am

By Tim Sawyier

British conductor Bramwell Tovey made his Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription debut Friday night with an effervescent program at Orchestra Hall. Fresh off a seven-city European tour with Riccardo Muti, the CSO musicians produced spirited playing under Tovey’s direction in their first home outing of 2017.

The concert began with the belated first CSO performance of Orb and Sceptre by Tovey’s countryman William Walton. Written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the work has a cinematic quality and vitality that make for an effective curtain raiser.

The grand sweep of its opening recalls Wagner’s Prelude to Der Meistersinger, and a contrasting middle section could easily pass for a lesser-known excerpt from Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches. The derivative qualities apart, Tovey’s emphatic leadership drew a vigorous performance from the CSO players.

Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra rounded out the all-British first half. The statement of the Purcell theme on which the work is based (the Rondeau from his Abdelazer) had swagger in its initial full orchestral iteration that Tovey maintained through the ensuing statements from each instrumental family.

All sections gamely acquitted themselves in the characterful variations that form the bulk of the Guide. The CSO flutes were particularly dynamic in their articulated variation and at the launch of the fugal finale, and the clarinets’ threw off the humorous pyrotechnics of their spotlight moment with aplomb. CSO’s storied low brass section gave a typically burnished rendition of their collective turn in the spotlight.

Tovey for his part was impressively attuned to the accompanying elements beneath the featured instruments, and highlighted Britten’s subtly ingenious adornments to great effect. For instance, Britten creates a unique sonority by having just the front desks of low strings provide moments of support in the horn section’s majestic feature, a detail that could easily be lost if not skillfully balanced.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Act 2 of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, which Tovey suggested in some opening remarks had never previously been performed entirely uncut at a CSO concert. When compared with Tchaikovsky’s orchestral staples (e.g. the later symphonies), the relative infrequency with which this music appears on symphonic programs made for a refreshing listening experience that seemed simultaneously fresh and familiar.

The second act of the ballet begins with a rollicking hunting party, which featured brilliant playing from the CSO horn section. However, the character Prince Désiré, who is leading the hunt, is forlorn with a nebulous pining, which his guests attempt to alleviate with a series of courtly dances. In the music that accompanies these one finds Tchaikovsky at his most Mozartean, writing with transparency yet quintessential Russian flair, a balance that Tovey calibrated expertly.

Though the evening had no headlining soloist, the Tchaikovsky act featured ample solo turns for the orchestra members. The entrance of the Lilac Fairy is accompanied by an extended flute solo, which principal Stéfan Ragnar Höskuldsson gave a soaring architecture. Principal cellist John Sharp’s solo persuasively matched the ardor of Prince Désiré’s longing, and the woodwind section played the music of the Lilac Fairy’s woodland nymphs with delicate articulation  worthy of Queen Mab.

Concertmaster Robert Chen gave sensitive treatment to the ebb and flow of the Entr’acte that precedes the finale, but had a few isolated moments of spotty intonation. In the act’s ebullient close Tovey continued to attend to the music’s longer lines, never allowing them to be subsumed in the frenetic euphoria that follows Aurora’s awakening.

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

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