Sublime Schubert opens Rush Hour Concerts’ summer series

Wed Jun 02, 2021 at 1:54 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Chicago Symphony Orchestra members performed Schubert’s String Quintet to open the Rush Hour Concerts Tuesday at St. James Cathedral. Photo: Elliot Mandel

There are many crucial questions facing classical musicians and presenters as the post-pandemic concert world is slowly coming into focus. One that many are wrestling with is, whither the stream? 

Streaming was the only way of continuing to present concerts during the 14 months of the Covid-19 pandemic when live public performances were impossible for health reasons. Yet the virtual option became popular with music aficionados and presenters alike, the latter having discovered a wider audience beyond local concertgoers. Many organizations have decided to continue their online presence this fall.

But given a choice between attending a local concert in person and watching a live-stream of it at home most people would prefer actually being there, right? Well, yes and no. Even for those of us who believe that even the most technologically advanced stream will always be second-best, there are times when taking advantage of the live-stream can be the preferable option.

Such was the case with the opening program of the Rush Hour Concerts, which kicked off its 12-week summer series Tuesday evening at St. James Cathedral. In a busy week, taking advantage of the live-stream was the more logistically attractive choice for a 45-minute program, preferable to driving into Chicago and dealing with parking, etc. When such choices are available, I think people will likewise weigh their options and make decisions based on timing, weather and security as much as personal convenience.

Happily, with Schubert’s String Quintet in C major as the sole work on Rush Hour’s opening program, such logistical thoughts disappeared with the very first notes. In fact, this memorable performance, played by Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians, was one of the finest renderings of this beloved work that I’ve ever heard, live or on disc. The masked musicians were CSO associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong, violinist Gina DiBello, violist Lawrence Neuman, and cellists Brant Taylor and assistant principal Kenneth Olsen. Some enterprising classical label should snap up these musicians for a recording pronto.

Schubert’s late Quintet is a masterpiece as widely acknowledged, but this performance communicated what makes it so with striking freshness and insight. Schubert’s bounteous fount of melody was always manifest but there was also a dexterous balancing of the dark rumination and tragedy with a compensating lyrical warmth, energy and optimism.

In the first violin chair, Stephanie Jeong led the ensemble with polished precision and unerring sensitivity throughout. The opening movement’s celebrated cello theme was floated with delicacy by Taylor and Olsen in its first appearance and succeeding iterations. Throughout there was an unhurried ebb and flow that felt inevitable and fully idiomatic. Even without the repeat, the movement had a grand scale without losing a sense of confiding intimacy. The players brought ample force in the development section but Schubert’s lyricism was always to the fore.

In the Adagio, Jeong’s gentle, inward solo phrases against the hushed accompaniment were lovely, ideally blending tonal refinement and expressive feeling. Throughout this rarefied music, the CSO musicians perfectly captured the existential feeling of time standing still. Contrasts were firmly pointed with the players bringing daunting force to the agitated desperation of the middle section. The uneasy passage leading back into the reprise of the opening was beautifully turned by Jeong and colleagues.

The players dug into the galumphing rustic theme of the Scherzo with accents vigorously punched out.  Perhaps the darker middle section was taken too slowly for its marking (Andante sostenudo) but the emotional contrast was undeniably effective.  The bustling good humor of the finale sealed this performance with alert dynamic shading, pacing and transitions faultlessly judged, and the coda as exhilarating as it should be.

The vast space of St. James can have a boomy resonance in person depending on one’s location. But in the stream the sound was ideal and balancing immaculate —clearly focused with fine bloom and shimmer.

The Rush Hour Concerts continue 5:45 p.m. every Tuesday through August 17 at St. James Cathedral. All programs will be live-streamed and in-person with limited, socially distanced seating.

On June 8 the Chen String Quartet and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang perform Schumann’s Piano Quintet and Ndodana-Breen’s Safika: Three Tales of African Migration.

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