Shaham provides the highlight of CSO program with engaging Mendelssohn

Fri Dec 01, 2017 at 2:14 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gil Shaham performed Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with John Storgårds conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Gil Shaham performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with John Storgårds conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

On paper, the main interest of Thursday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program was the podium debut of John Storgårds—yet another Finnish conductor from that land of super-abundant musical talent who is enjoying an international career.

Yet the highlight of the evening was the return of an old CSO friend, Gil Shaham, who provided the most consistent rewards as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor.

There are few violinists before the public whose engaging personality informs their music-making as much as the Urbana native. Shaham’s ebullient presence is well-suited to Mendelssohn’s concerto, arguably the most beloved work in the genre.

The violinist brought his singular combination of sweet, singing tone and easy virtuosity to this uber-familiar music–as well as his quirky, restless stage presence. A wide space was wisely cleared for the smiling, peripatetic Shaham, as the mobile soloist would move close to the first stand of violins in jam-session fashion, or nestle himself close to the conductor’s podium.

Individual touches abounded: the burst of hyper-speed fireworks in the closing bars of the opening movement, his pure, silvery tone and intimate way with the Andante’s main theme, and the lilting take on the finale, which put across the bravura while radiating an infectious  joy.

Storgårds was a close, solid enough collaborator, though his accompaniment could have used a firmer, more incisive grip at times.

The ovations brought Shaham back out until he provided an encore–a dancing, songful rendering of the Loure and Gigue from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E major.

The rest of the program focused on Scandinavian works, music in which one would think a Finnish musician would excel. Yet Storgårds made a rather mixed impression.

John Storgårds. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
John Storgårds. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

It says something about changing musical fashion that the Suite No. 1 from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt–long a concert-hall cornerstone–hasn’t been played by the CSO in 13 years. That shot-out-of-the-canon status seems to apply more broadly as well, though the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Grieg’s complete incidental music to Ibsen’s play in an intriguingly offbeat theatrical presentation in October.

Storgårds, who began his career as a violinist, seems to favor a soft-focus, legato style in his music-making. The celebrated “Morning Mood” led off with a wonderfully bucolic, mountain-air flute solo by Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson. Yet while Storgårds marked dynamics closely, his over-moulding of the line felt self-conscious and mannered.

And so it went. “Ase’s Death” was lightweight and lacking expressive intensity and there was little lilting charm in “Anitra’s Dance.” “In the Hall of the Mountain King” came off best, with Storgårds’ deftly handled acceleration beginning the grotesque insistent theme at an extremely slow tempo and building to a fiery and furious coda.

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 closed the evening. Here too, while there were inspired moments, there were also interpretive oddities and extended sections of dully competent direction that made for an uneven performance.

The opening clarinet solo was far too loud and heavily phrased, failing to establish the austere mystery that should draw us into the unfolding Northern drama. While the opening movement was capably charted and well played by the  orchestra, there also some unconvincing Barenboim-esque brake tapping with the tempos by Storgårds. So too while the Andante’s vein of lyricism was richly presented, what was with the agogic pause before the final note of the main theme?

The final two movements went better. Apart from an overloud timpani, the Scherzo’s nervous energy was fully manifest with the contrasting nostalgic of the trio well etched. The final movement had ample drama with the big theme given its soaring due without excess and the final two chords providing a neatly hushed coda.

Still, while this was intermittently effective Sibelius, one tends to expect more from a Finnish conductor in his nation’s greatest composer—especially after the riveting CSO performance of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2  led last summer at Ravinia by Susanna Mälkki–who succeeded Storgårds as music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

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