Barenboim returns to CSO for a mixed night of Smetana

Fri Nov 02, 2018 at 12:29 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Daniel Barenboim conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Smetana’s “Má vlast” Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

It’s been a week of significant podium history for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 

On Tuesday, after Bernard Haitink finished leading his last night of an extraordinary Bruckner Sixth, the CSO musicians gave their former principal conductor a “tusch” as he took his curtain call. The improvised fanfare is a sign of deep respect for a fellow musician and a rarity, especially in Chicago. Haitink, who will turn 90 next March, is going on a “sabbatical” after this season. The musicians likely felt that Tuesday could well be his final local appearance and offered their musical tribute, by which the Dutch conductor was deeply and visibly touched, say those in attendance. 

The week’s other conductorial news came Thursday night when Daniel Barenboim returned to Orchestra Hall to lead his first CSO concert in 12 years.

The Chicago Symphony’s music director from 1991-2006, Barenboim did not leave Chicago on happy terms due as much to his fraying relations with the orchestra as well as a fractious relationship with the CSO’s then-president Deborah Rutter. Current music director Riccardo Muti graciously invited Barenboim to return, he accepted and this week’s concerts are the result.

Whatever one thinks of Barenboim’s music-making or his controversial 15-year CSO tenure, it was undeniably heartening to see the conductor— still a notably energetic presence at 76—return to the Orchestra Hall stage. Barenboim was greeted with an enthusiastic and prolonged ovation from the audience with much cheering, which he took in for a generous duration. 

Many of the characteristic elements of Barenboim’s Chicago days were back: the high podium, his leaning back on the rail, conducting without a score, and the unorthodox orchestra arrangement (violin split left and right, cellos inside left,  basses behind against the wall). There was also a program bio that took up nearly two complete pages of small print, making Muti’s CV look epigrammatic.

But Thursday’s return was by no means a unanimous lovefest. The large number of empty seats didn’t exactly reflect a victorious homecoming. There were a couple scattered boos among the cheers at Barenboim’s entrance, and, while some greeted him with a standing ovation, the vast majority of the audience remained seated. The somber, even grim expressions on some players’ faces likewise testified to the strongly oppositional views that persist today over Barenboim, from musicians as well as the Chicago audience. 

The conductor’s choice of music for his return was an unexpected one: Bedrich Smetana’s epic Má vlast.  The choice was surprising since Barenboim showed little interest in the Czech composer’s music during his CSO years, programming just one-off appearances of  “Vltava” from Má vlast and the Bartered Bride Overture.

Much like the man and his music-making, Thursday’s mixed performance of Smetana’s nationalist epic will likely divide opinion. Fans of the conductor will hear a rousing and dramatic performance of these six tone poems distinguished by individual interpretive touches. 

Yet detractors will view the performance as a wayward and self-regarding account that said less about the music than about the conductor leading it. Last year, the CSO under Jakub Hrůša gave us a deep, idiomatic and compelling performance of Smetana’s Ma vlast; on Thursday night Barenboim gave a performance of Daniel Barenboim conducting Smetana’s Ma vlast.

“Vyšehrad,” which opens the 75-minute work, was emblematic of the evening. The silver-screen opening for the two harps was more cinematic than bardic or atmospheric. The segue into the opening theme by the winds was jarringly clumsy, the many players on the current roster inexperienced with Barenboim’s conducting style, seeming baffled by his ambiguous cueing and gestures. The climax of “Vyšehrad” was brilliantly colored and boldly projected, Barenboim directing with wide, sweeping gestures.

And so it went. There were admirable moments to be sure, mostly in the dramatic pages, as with the cataclysmic climax to “Vltava” and the warlike intensity of “Šárka.” Yet there were also the familiar, less happy Barenboim qualities: stodgy tempos, unwritten swells and rallentandos, and micro-managing of details to no discernible benefit. 

Oddly, Barenboim’s Má vlast was most convincing in the least inspired final two poems where his idiosyncrasies benefited the music. He brought pointed edge to the thrusting motif of the Hussite motto in both “Tábor” and “Blaník”;  the conductor allowed the woodwinds free rein in the latter with oboist William Welter and colleagues making the most of the opportunity. 

What was lacking was more moments like that. If you like Smetana played like it’s Prokofiev, this is the Má vlast for you. But ultimately, this was a charmless, hard-edged and aggressive take on this Czech epic, lacking in affection with zero sense of Bohemian flavor. 

The wonderful Má vlast the orchestra delivered last year under the baton of Hrůša, in his most impressive CSO debut, were in a different universe altogether. Mark your calendar for the young Czech maestro’s return to Chicago in April.

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

Posted in Performances

5 Responses to “Barenboim returns to CSO for a mixed night of Smetana”

  1. Posted Nov 02, 2018 at 12:56 pm by ML

    I was in the gallery. I did not hear boo; instead, someone two or three rows behind me repeatedly shouted “welcome back!!”. This might be mistaken as boos from a distance.

    Unfortunately the trumpet section is not as robust as we heard in 83 under Kubelik.

    There are certain things I do not like: towards the end of Blanik, the score said “largamente maestoso” followed by “grandioso”, but DB rushed through them. These are moments with special and definite extra-musical meanings and score instructions must be followed through to obtain the effects Smetana had in mind.

    I think the performance improved as music proceeded.

  2. Posted Nov 02, 2018 at 9:56 pm by EDDIE

    Another dig at Prokofiev by you. Every Prokofiev work gets slammed, at least 3 times I recall recently. Well at least this was about Smetena, oh wait…

  3. Posted Nov 03, 2018 at 9:27 am by Andrew

    Thanks for confirming that my decision to stay away from this concert was the right one. I’d love to hear Barenboim conduct the CSO again, but not in this music.

  4. Posted Nov 04, 2018 at 8:41 am by m

    ” The somber, even grim expressions on some players’ faces likewise testified to the strongly oppositional views that persist today over Barenboim, from musicians as well as the Chicago audience.” I guess we see what we want to see.

    If the President of the U.S. has an approval rating of 60%, that is regarded as extraordinary–of course it also means that more than 100 million people don’t like him. Barenboim, like every CSO Music Director I have played under, had his adherents and those who couldn’t stand him.

    I was definitely in the first category, and this week was an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. What I find particularly gratifying was the reaction of so many of the new hirees, who had never experienced Barenboim before. I hesitate to speak for my colleagues, but my sense is that more than a few of them were awestruck, which has often been my reaction to him.

    As a previous poster remarked, the reference to Prokofiev is bizarre. I would be hard put to come up with a composer for whom Barenboim had less sympathy. The only Prokofiev I can ever remember him programming was a concerto accompaniment as a favor to his old friend Itzhak Perlman. And I am at a loss how anybody with ears could hear this concert, in which Barenboim insisted on intense vibrato and sustained lines from the strings from the first note to the last, and hear a “charmless, hard-edged and aggressive take” a la Prokofiev.

  5. Posted Nov 06, 2018 at 9:33 am by JB

    Sad that this reviewer found it necessary to be so snarky (the nicest word I can think to describe it). The concert was a joy and it was great to see Barenboim again.

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