A musical anniversary marked in thrilling fashion by Matsuev, Honeck and CSO

Fri Oct 29, 2021 at 1:25 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Manfred Honeck led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Schubert, Prokofiev and Jessie Montgomery Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In recent years, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has not always been inspired in its booking of substitute conductors. But this month the organization managed to serve up back-to-back home runs. 

To cover Michael Tilson Thomas’s cancellations due to recovery from brain surgery, the CSO nabbed James Conlon last week. And Thursday night, Manfred Honeck returned, giving audiences an unexpected fall appearance by one of the CSO’s most popular and consistently reliable guest conductors.

Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto remained the program’s centerpiece but the retooled program nicely framed the keyboard warhorse, with a Schubert symphony and a work by Jessie Montgomery, the CSO’s new composer in residence.

Montgomery’s Coincident Dances led off the evening. Premiered by the Chicago Sinfonietta in 2017, the 12-minute work was inspired, said Montgomery, by “the sounds found in New York’s various cultures, capturing the frenetic energy and multi-cultural palette one hears even in a short walk through a New York City neighborhood.”

That might indicate an unpromising pastiche but Coincident Dances is a much more interesting and sophisticated piece than its populist musical influences suggest. The work is launched with a stately double-bass solo that seems to echo viol music of Marin Marais, rendered with somber melancholy by Alexander Hanna. We quickly segue into fast syncopated music, set against leaping flute passages. Highlights of this quick-running Brooklyn Baedeker Guide include a sassy squealing trumpet solo, driving urban music and Latin percussion passages that bear a passing kinship to Leonard Bernstein (no shouts of “Mambo!” here) en route to a quietly playful coda for two flutes.

The score is at times chaotic yet engaging, much like the musical street scene it depicts. Honeck led the CSO in a lively and exuberant performance, and the composer was on hand to take a bow and acknowledge the warm applause. (Montgomery will host her first MusicNOW program as composer in residence Monday night.)

One hundred years ago, a tall, pale scholarly-looking young man walked out on the stage of Orchestra Hall to debut his new concerto with the CSO and music director Frederick Stock. The composer was Sergei Prokofiev, the work was his Piano Concerto No. 3, and the rest is music history.

This week’s program is marking the centennial of that historic occasion (December 16 and 17, 1921). And one could hardly have picked a more apt soloist to give this anniversary performance than Denis Matsuev.

Denis Matsuev performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Manfred Honeck and the CSO Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Russian pianist has both the muscle and the stainless-steel technique to tackle the myriad difficulties of this warhorse, as he so richly demonstrated Thursday night. The speed-race to the blazing coda of the opening movement provoked quiet exclamations from audience members who were clearly astounded at the soloist’s power and velocity.

Yet Matsuev also brought a compensating lightness of touch to the variations of the central Andantino. There was a fantasia-like Chopin quality to his first solo and the pianist brought limpid delicacy to the lyrical sections in between the more galumphing variations.

More than in most concerto performances, Honeck and the CSO were fully equal partners with the soloist. The conductor led a boldly projected, boisterous orchestral accompaniment that would likely have swamped any other soloist in this big-boned score.

Matsuev invested the finale’s spiky main theme with emphatic punch and relentlessly ratcheted up the volume and intensity. The buildup to the percussive coda amid Matsuev’s dizzying glissandos and corruscating brilliance provided the most thrilling display of solo virtuosity at Orchestra Hall since the CSO’s reopening and of recent years. One could hardly imagine a finer or more successful centenary marking of this historic Chicago premiere.

The concert closed with Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. From the hushed bars of the ominous opening theme, Honeck led a fleet, tautly focused performance, firmly putting across the dark, foreboding essence of the opening movement. William Welter’s keening oboe solo was enmeshed within the larger musical narrative. The famous lilting theme for cellos emerged refined and flowing, neither overly spotlit nor sentimental.

To ears accustomed to Riccardo Muti’s strings-on-top textures, Honeck’s brass and timpani-led tuttis sounded rather fierce and even strident at times, though they strongly conveyed the dramatic intensity of the music. 

The score was just as surely charted in the second movement, the de facto finale of Schubert’s unfinished work. Honeck’s mobile tempo likewise skirted undue emotion in the heart-easing main theme; Welter’s oboe here provided a light-in-the-cave solace, both solo and in a gracious duet with clarinetist Stephen Williamson.

Honeck skillfully balanced the beneficent lyricism and roiling drama and was at his finest in the final section. With the slowing tempo and calibrated descent of dynamics, the sense of a long, lingering farewell was most affecting in the tender playing of the musicians. Too bad some audience members had to immediately applaud and break the spell, not allowing the quiet, glowing coda to hang in the air.

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The CSO is now offering free access to its CSOtv platform. Launched last year to present streamed performances during the pandemic, the portal includes the back catalog of CSO Sessions streams as well as new continuing episodes. There is also some fascinating archival material with CSO performances of historic interest. Go to CSO.tv and create an account to start watching.

This week’s program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org

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One Response to “A musical anniversary marked in thrilling fashion by Matsuev, Honeck and CSO”

  1. Posted Oct 31, 2021 at 2:46 pm by Jordan

    Maestro’s Honeck rendition of Schubert’s Unifinished was extraordinary and in every way superior to Muti’s. I hope Maestro Honeck becomes the CSO new Music Director.

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