Inspired moments on a mixed Mahler journey from CSO, Orozco-Estrada

Fri Oct 12, 2018 at 12:01 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 Thursday night. Photo: Martin Sigmund

It’s a striking irony of the current Chicago Symphony Orchestra era that one of the world’s greatest Mahler orchestras is led by a music director who makes no secret of his lack of regard for Mahler’s music. Yes, Riccardo Muti has led worthy performances of the First Symphony—and less-worthy performances of the Fourth—but, for the most part, Mahler podium duties these days are slotted out to the CSO’s guest conductors.

That can be a good thing as with Manfred Honeck’s memorable performances of the Fifth Symphony in January. Or it can be more mixed, as was the case with Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 led by Andrés Orozco-Estrada Thursday night.

The young Columbian conductor made an uneven impression in his CSO debut two years ago—not least for his theatrical podium manner and, especially, his bizarre rearrangement of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question for three offstage trumpets instead of one, as called for in the score.  Assigning one of Mahler’s most challenging works to such a showy podium guest seemed a baffling choice.

As it turned out, Orozco-Estrada’s Mahler proved more positive than anticipated Thursday night, as he led the orchestra in this epic journey—though ultimately one came away more impressed by the playing than the mixed conducting.

Even by his usual relentless artistic standard, Mahler ceaselessly revised his Third Symphony over and over. One vocal section became the finale of his Fourth Symphony, and programs were written and jettisoned before the work reached its final version of six movements freely mixing orchestra and voices. Scored for huge forces and spanning 90 minutes with a vast opening movement that takes up a third of the entire work, this is Mahler’s largest canvas and longest work.

The Third’s strange mixture of nature imagery, nostalgia and Nietzsche presents a pantheism that leads ultimately to an elevated spiritual state. If the programmatic element doesn’t always hang together convincingly, the Third offers some of Mahler’s most magnificent music, from the massive first movement to the symphonic finale, one of the composer’s deepest and most eloquent inspirations. 

The nine horns launched the symphony’s opening (“Summer marches in”) with daunting heft and sonorous impact. In the vast half-hour movement, Orozco-Estrada kept the music moving for the most part, despite slowing down some sections nearly to the point of stasis. The big climaxes were put across with all due brilliance and vitality. Yet the conductor missed an essential weirdness in this score, often seeming impatient and surfacey in contrasting sections that needed greater space and breadth. 

Overall, there was a feeling of interpretive blankness in this movement. Noisy sections made the strongest impact, as with the crazed, whirling coda, one of Mahler’s best slam-bang moments. But lacking was a sense of architecture and overarching vision. Also, for an orchestra used to the kind of precision-detailed Mahler led by the likes of Honeck and Bernard Haitink, too many important balancing details were sloughed over. 

Fast forward to the majestic finale, which was the greatest letdown of the evening. With Orozco-Estrada over-moulding the string lines, the playing lacked an organic quality and essential inner quality. The direction felt most superficial here, trying to forcibly impose the expression from the podium rather than coxing it from the score via the players.

The performance was most successful in the middle movements where Orozco-Estrada seemed more in his element. 

The graceful minuet of the second movement went with ample lilting charm, spiced by Robert Chen’s gracious violin solos. And there was personality aplenty in the rustic third movement, with Stephen Williamson’s woodsy clarinet and, especially, Mark Ridenour’s offstage trumpet.

Kelley O’Connor

The clear high point of the performance came with the vocal solo at the center of the symphony. The admonitory Nietzsche text is one of the few dark moments in the Third, Mahler’s most unclouded symphony. Yet here the dusky-voiced mezzo Kelley O’Connor brought a touching humanity and inner glow to the music, her natural, beautifully expressive singing making this moment succeed in a way I’ve never before experienced live and only rarely on disc.

The ensuing contrasting section paints a cheerful anticipation of heavenly pleasures and was equally well delivered by O’Connor, backed by the bright-voiced women of the CSO Chorus and the young singers of Anima. The chorus members also showed great composure and professionalism, continuing to stand until Orozco-Estrada belatedly cued them to sit several minutes into the final movement.

If the podium direction proved variable, the orchestra playing was nonpareil even by CSO standards, both from sections and individually. 

Now in his 57th season with the orchestra— and 54th as principal—Jay Friedman led the trombone section’s stentorian dramatic blasts with dark baleful power and brought songful expression to his extended first-movement solos.

Mark Ridenour performed the third movement’s offstage solo on a standard trumpet rather than the posthorn called for by Mahler, which disappointingly sacrificed the unique timbral qualities of the antique instrument. 

Yet such was the extraordinary playing of this challenging high solo that all was forgiven. As with O’Connor’s singing in the fourth movement, Ridenour’s atmospheric playing succeeded gloriously in a passage that often fails to come off in live performance. Nearly technically immaculate, his rendering fully evoked the blend of childhood innocence and contented nostalgia in a most affecting way.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Inspired moments on a mixed Mahler journey from CSO, Orozco-Estrada”

  1. Posted Oct 15, 2018 at 9:34 pm by David Anderson

    I attended both Thurs and Fri performances. I agree that Ridenour’s renditions were nearly flawless–the flaws were identical in both concerts. I’ve heard the posthorn solo played on a posthorn by Thomas Rolfs in Boston, flawlessly I might add.

    I’ve also heard the trombone solo in the 1st mvt played at a superior artistic level by Toby Oft, in Boston, and Tim Higins in San Francisco. Jay Friedman was nowhere near that level of artistry. He was barely playing the notes. I heard the previous concert with the Ives and thought it to be inspired on the conductor’s part, using the 3 trumpeters in different positions acoustically and moving segue to Also Sprach Zarathustra. As far as the Mahler 3rd performance was concerned, I felt his interpretation was entirely in the mainstream. I don’t know if you have a personal vendetta against the conductor, but if so, you should leave it at the door, and not at your word processor.

    The CSO is on the ascendancy, though there are some problems in the brass sections that need to be addressed. Their principal wind players are without peer and the string section except for the type of viola section that makes the Philadelphia Orchestra so compelling is very fine. Theirs is the most cohesive horn section in the US. The trumpet and trombone sections need some re-tooling to reach the level of the best European orchestras, but they are not far off. Your musical criticism should be on the relative level of the Berlin Phil, since the CSO is at the top of the US orchestral level.

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