Lintu, CSO provide a season highlight with explosive Lindberg premiere

Fri Dec 03, 2021 at 1:38 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Hannu Lintu conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Magnus Lindberg, Lalo and Brahms Thursday night at Orchestra Hall. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Omicron variant and never-ending mask mandates notwithstanding, Chicago’s concert world really seems to be returning to normal.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra offered its first full-length concert (with intermission) of the year Thursday night. Fittingly, the program, conducted by Hanna Lintu, was also one of the most well-balanced and satisfying concerts this season, with a significant world premiere, blazing concerto showpiece and estimable performance of a cornerstone symphony. Why can’t all orchestral concerts be like this?

The main order of business was the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Serenades, which opened the evening. The debut work is a CSO co-commission with Radio France via the Helen Zell Commissioning Program.

Though the title may suggest a relaxed, pastoral idyll similar to the serenades of Brahms and Dvořák, Lindberg’s new work is hardly that. This rugged score is cast in the Finnish composer’s prevailing tense, explosive style; yet it also displays the fleeting lyricism that has been part of his more recent music, notably, the folk-flavored Clarinet Concerto.

There is a lurking elemental power in this turbulent work, echoing Lindberg’s compatriot Jean Sibelius, but transmuted through a 21st-century lens. Cast in a single movement of 15 minutes, the music also fitfully evokes the middle movements of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in its sense of nocturnal unease.

Scored for a vast orchestra, Serenades opens with an imposing theme, the music quickly accelerating and building to an emphatic statement by brass and timpani. A restless, nervous energy and hair-trigger tension dominate, the music breaking out in bursts of angular brass fanfares, antic woodwind lines spinning around the rising and falling strings. Halfway through, the music quietens to hushed cello pizzicatos and a gamboling scherzo-like passage. Though much of the score is edgy and aggressive, a soaring, sumptuous theme for strings enters near the end—as if to say, “Okay, here is the serenade bit you’ve been waiting for”— before the music ends in a quiet yet satisfying pianissimo.

Serenades is, arguably, the finest and most successful commission of the Muti era. There are no longueurs in the continuous quarter-hour span with Lindberg maintaining an urgent and compelling musical narrative. 

This music was clearly written with the gleam and virtuosity of the CSO in mind. Lintu led the orchestra in a thunderous, bravura performance that brought out the power and individuality of his countryman’s score. Lindberg was on hand to take a well-deserved bow, though both this premiere and a composer of Lindberg’s stature deserved a more enthusiastic response than either received Thursday night.

One could get the musical bends segueing from the Lindberg premiere to Eduard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole.

The second of Lalo’s four violin concertos, the 1874 work skillfully mines Iberian colors mixed with violin fireworks in five deftly contrasted movements. The work also launched a century of French composers drawing on Spanish elements in their music, notably Debussy and Ravel.

Once a repertoire perennial, Lalo’s concerto hasn’t been heard at a CSO concert in 13 years, yet the blazing performance delivered by Ray Chen Thursday night made it worth the wait.

Ray Chen was the soloist in Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

While it plumbs no great profundity, Symphonie espaganole is engaging music of great craft and melodic appeal. Chen was the ideal solo protagonist, possessed of a stainless-steel technique and the personality and exuberance to make the strongest possible case for Lalo’s confection.

Though the tone of his 1715 “Joachim” Stradivarius, is not large, Chen played with acutely focused tone and seamless virtuosity, sailing through all the technical landmines with winning charm and panache. 

He was especially inspired in the latter movements, bringing an intimate sense of yearning and expressive depth to the Andante. The infectious tick-tock theme in the Rondo finale was irresistible in Chen’s hands and with Lintu lending equally energetic support, the soloist ratcheted up the solo fireworks to an exhilarating coda.

It was perhaps a bit of lily-gilding for the uninhibited Chen to offer a Paganini encore after such a show-offy concerto but the violinist’s fizzing take on the Caprice No. 21 was equally superb, expressive in the first part and dervish yet immaculate in the concluding pyrotechnics. 

The first half of the program would have made Thursday’s concert worthwhile by itself. But Lintu and the orchestra closed the evening with a notably insightful and involving performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.

There are times when you know immediately that you are in for a special performance and the very first note of the opening phrase for violins in the Allegro non troppo—held just a bit longer than usual—was one of those instances.  Lintu’s interpretation brought a freshness and uncommon sense of discovery to this much-played work, drawing, rich-textured, fully committed playing from the orchestra. 

The very tall Finnish conductor did nothing outre or unusual in this work. But all the varied elements sounded with great presence and impact, aided by clarity and skillful balancing. The drama and stormy contrasts of the opening movement unfolded with a focused momentum, and Lintu found an insistent bite in the third movement that gave it a greater edge beyond the usual good-natured giocoso.

The slow movement was especially inspired—rich, deep-textured and beautifully played with the reprise of the string theme bestowing a glowing Brahmsian solace. The passacaglia finale was aptly tough and craggy, each iteration of the theme hitting its mark. Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s searching flute solo conveyed an apt voice in the wilderness en route to an impassioned and defiant coda.

Lintu’s concentrated direction drew superb playing across all sections, none finer than principal horn David Cooper and his colleagues.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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2 Responses to “Lintu, CSO provide a season highlight with explosive Lindberg premiere”

  1. Posted Dec 04, 2021 at 10:51 pm by Sharon Noskin

    Exactly my thoughts and sentiments.

    Happily on Saturday night Lindberg’s Serenades got a warm and enthusiastic reception. Fantastic work.

    I hope this concert was recorded. It could be the best I’ve heard in years.

  2. Posted Dec 05, 2021 at 12:52 pm by William Copper

    Good assessment! I especially agree about the well-balanced and interesting programming. May the CSO follow with many more evenings like this one.

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