Tetzlaff delivers combustible Bartók, Gardner glowing Vaughan Williams with CSO

Fri Nov 04, 2022 at 2:52 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christian Tetzlaff performed Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Edward Gardner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Thursday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, directed by Edward Gardner, brought outstanding performances across a nicely varied program. Yet it also brought reason for disquiet that had nothing to do with the fine playing by the musicians.

In addition to rows of unsold seats in the lower balcony once again, the upper balcony was virtually empty. Granted the evening’s three works may not have been familiar to those who only want to hear Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. But this was a rich and accessible program of music by Wagner, Bartók, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, which anyone with open ears and an open mind would have enjoyed immensely. 

The scores of vacant seats were jarring. What is causing this? Audience musical conservatism? Justified concerns about downtown crime and violence? Ticket prices? Brutal inflation and a dismal economy? Lingering fears about Covid? A long-gestating overall cultural dumbing down? All of the above?

The more-than-half-empty house was especially disheartening for such an engaging program, not least Christian Tetzlaff’s combustible performance of Bela Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

Scored for a large orchestra and spanning nearly 40 minutes, Bartók’s concerto on the surface resembles the Romantic fiddle concertos of the 19th century; the tender theme of the central variations echoes something of that tradition.

But Bartók’s music and quirky and individual writing largely eschew such associations. This is restless, strange and shadowy music—imbued with pungent Hungarian folk melodies, bent pitches for the soloist and even skirting tonality at times. As the music leaps from idea to idea, the mercurial score almost seems to be a subversive goof on the grand concerto—upending the proceedings with a wicked harmonic backflip here or teasing with a big, arching theme for orchestra there, only to have the soloist reenter with sardonic commentary.

Christian Tetzlaff proved an ideal solo protagonist. The German violinist’s lean, astringent tone and nervy virtuosity is well suited to this brilliant, hard-edged score, and he put across the folk-tinged verbunkos coloring as surely as the sudden bursts of unbridled intensity.

Tetzlaff also brought gentle expression to the (fleeting) moments of lyrical repose—as with his fragile delicacy in the main theme of the Andante tranquillo—before segueing into the more aggressive ensuing variations. The soloist threw off the spiky fireworks of the finale with striking bravura to conclude a fiery and compelling performance.

Gardner’s somewhat equivocal baton style seemed to produce a few untidy moments at transitions. But for the most part, he drew polished and powerful playing from the orchestra. This shape-shifting concerto can often feel discursive but Gardner led a taut and concentrated performance. The violence of the explosive tuttis at times suggested a souped-up Hungarian grunge band.

The enthusiastic ovation brought Tetzlaff back out for an encore. The violinist offered the Andante from Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003, rendered in an intimate yet unsentimental style.

The concerto was preceded by the Prelude to Act III from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Overtures apart, isolated excerpts from Wagner operas are somewhat frowned upon in some circles in these musicologically serious times. But such magnificent music as this should always be heard widely when productions of Wagner’s vast stage works are few and far between.

Gardner led a spacious reading, from the cellos’ burnished introduction of the ruminative main theme to the eloquent playing by the five horns.

While long standard repertoire in his native England, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies continue to be curiously neglected on this side of the pond. The CSO has performed all of his symphonies at least once, yet the last local outing for any of these works was 12 years ago.

Kudos then to the CSO programmers for marking this 150th year of Vaughan Williams’ birth with his Symphony No. 5, which concluded the evening.

Skeptics may deride the English pastoral tradition as the “cow looking over a fence” school of music. But while much of the score is indeed slow, gentle and contemplative, there are also darker shadows in this wartime work (premiered in 1943).

Gardner led a refined and wholly idiomatic performance of this British masterwork. While he conveyed the elements of peaceful repose, he also firmly brought out the symphonic strength of the composer’s writing, and the climax of the first movement had daunting punch. The Scherzo went with an almost nautical elan, with the contrasting baleful unease of the middle section conveyed by the trombones.

The spiritual dimension of the beautiful Romanza—the main theme was adapted from the composer’s then-unfinished opera Pilgrim’s Progress—was palpable in this performance, especially via Scott Hostetler’s atmospheric English horn solo. 

It’s a testament to the CSO musicians’ flexibility that they can play so convincingly and with such an idiomatic feel in a score they haven’t touched in 12 years. The radiant string playing really soared throughout this performance. 

The refined corporate tone made the variations of the concluding Passacaglia glow with warmth of expression. Perhaps Gardner slowed down the final section a bit too much; a more flowing tempo can make the overlapping string waves and quiet coda even more affecting.

That quibble apart, this was a lovely and richly drawn performance of music by a great English composer whose works Chicago should hear more often. Perhaps Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony or Sinfonia antartica can be slated for a future season.

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

Posted in Performances

14 Responses to “Tetzlaff delivers combustible Bartók, Gardner glowing Vaughan Williams with CSO”

  1. Posted Nov 04, 2022 at 4:11 pm by Roger

    Your opening comment regarding low attendance is most relevant and very noticeable. As a longtime subscriber, the 2022/2023 season is the first one I am subscribing to Friday matinees. For many years, Saturday night was CSO night.

    Although age played a role in my decision, a major factor was the civil strife plaguing Chicago’s streets as well as urban America. I arrive at Symphony Center via CTA’s Blue Line. Following a matinee concert, I depart the hall in sunlight, populated streets and riders at the station. With a Saturday evening performance normally ending after 10 PM, I return to the subway looking over my shoulder.

    Numerous friends that normally attended a play, concert, exhibit, etc. downtown, enjoy dinner or a drink afterward, now avoid the Loop because of street robberies and shootings. All the points mentioned in your opening statement are valid but crime is overwhelmingly the principal one.

    Unfortunately, urban political leaders’ laissez faire attitude towards the street mayhem, the defund the police movement, low morale and resignations in police departments, et. al.—not only here but in other urban centers—are contributing to the decline of downtown America.

    Our civic, business and cultural leaders must exert pressure on politicians to take proactive steps to curtail street crime before citizens will once again return downtown. If not, Arlington Heights may be the new home for the CSO and other entertainment venues!

  2. Posted Nov 04, 2022 at 8:51 pm by Zip

    I disagree with almost the entirety of the first commenter’s essay about “street mayhem.” I can’t afford CSO ticket prices and I can’t afford to get sick with COVID again and miss work because of it, so that’s why I didn’t attend this weekend’s appealing program.

  3. Posted Nov 05, 2022 at 12:36 am by Robert Eisenberg

    We did not go to the Bartok, Vaughan Williams concert because we do not like their music! At the prices charged, we go only to what we know we like. After all, we can learn to like other music for free nowadays.

    The role of live concerts has changed remarkably in the last years compared to 1976 when I first subscribed to the CSO. The CSO will need to learn to market and profit from presentations on YouTube and streaming media sooner or later, if it wishes to survive. If it learns successfully, it will thrive.

    The only question is when. The remarkable quality of the playing which continues to improve as it has in the 70 years or so I have been listening, guarantees eventual success.The “Beyond the Score” series shows how imaginative the CSO organization can be at its best. But the sooner the CSO organization deals with modern reality the better.

    Compare what has happened to the NY Times, The Chicago Tribune, and the (UK) Guardian to see three different ways classical institutions have adapted to modern realities. One has succeeded beyond all imagination (of me anyway), one has ceased to exist in recognizable form, and one is in desperate trouble.

  4. Posted Nov 05, 2022 at 1:13 am by niloiv

    Many people left after the first half. I guess Vaughan Williams is just either not familiar or heavyweight enough for box office–especially considering Thielemann led an electrifying Bruckner 8 last week which is still resounding in my ears. And Berlin Philharmonic will be in town with Mahler in a couple weeks.

    Regarding safety in downtown, honestly it doesn’t feel that bad in my experience. I take a 15-min walk to the west after every concert, and in most cases have enough people around me around 10pm to feel safe (and police every other block. hard to tell I feel more or less safe with that). But yes it won’t be the most casual/pleasant evening walk, and it always helps to keep an eye on the surroundings walking here.

  5. Posted Nov 05, 2022 at 4:32 am by Tim

    A Vaughan Williams festival as part of this season’s program would have been a welcome and intriguing opportunity…missed.

    As last fall’s concerts carefully opened Orchestra Hall again after over a year of Covid closure, I noticed a different sort of audience than what has come to be expected for CSO events: a lot of enthusiastic young people. Discounts and promotional pricing on tickets also assisted/encouraged sales. The hall was not sold out, by any means. But it had a new, revived spirit.

    Like a lot of things in our now-changed world, perhaps arts organizations should seriously look at whether “returning to normal” is ever going to be the reality; instead asking what new paths forward can and should be. It may look a lot different than the old model, which everyone was reliant upon, and take new or evolving initiative in moving forward.

    As for me, I’m tired of being condescendingly lectured to by Maestro Muti, who despite some amazing music-making which I’ve been privileged to hear and attend, I don’t feel has ever really established an effective connection with Chicagoans. I’m intrigued by this year’s guest conductors and ready to move on….if I can actually get a ticket that doesn’t break my bank in tough economic times.

    Ultimately, I’d like to attend several CSO concerts this season. But, I may attend none. I’ve decided not to feel that I should or need to, but only consider going if it truly seems to fit what I enjoy and can benefit by at the moment. As such, I’ve already passed upon some which were highlighted on my list.

    There is a lot of other music to hear in Chicago. Sometimes, although not at the same level of refined musicianship, I hear more intriguing programs at university recitals. Though, it (sadly) doesn’t seem there is a ton of Vaughan Williams on their programs this year either.

  6. Posted Nov 05, 2022 at 4:02 pm by Bob

    I had looked forward to this program -specifically the Vaughan Williams – since it was first announced and I was not disappointed. I wish that those patrons who feel that Vaughan Williams is not sufficiently serious music could have seen the obvious relish with which the CSO musicians engaged the score. It appeared to me that they were absolutely delighted to be playing this wonderful masterpiece, so sensitively conducted by Gardner. I discovered Vaughan Williams in college – I am now 73 – and he has been one of my very favorite composers for all of those years. Much of the music is contemplative but the writing and orchestration are masterful. Vaughan Williams’ roots in English folk music and Renaissance polyphony are apparent and stimulating. Personally, I love to hear the music of great composers that is uniquely idiomatic, clearly emanating from a deeply personal perspective and experience. I am grateful to the CSO and Edward Gardiner for letting me hear this great piece so beautifully and convincingly performed.

    Regarding downtown, I think that anyone who contends that the overpowering impressions of lawlessness and danger are not a real factor for many of us attending cultural events – concerts, plays, museums, even dining – is engaged in some form of denial. It is a major problem, not just for the CSO but for the City of Chicago. A future like Detroit’s is no longer inconceivable.

    I worked in the Loop from 1975 through 2001. After retiring, I continued to come downtown 3 to 4 times a week for concerts, U of C classes and other cultural events. I built my life around it. Until recently, I never thought twice about not coming downtown because of personal safety concerns – traffic or weather sure but not safety.

    Finally, I agree that the Thielemann Bruckner 8 was monumental. I have rarely, maybe never, heard the orchestra play better or with more commitment. It was the concert of the season and maybe longer.

  7. Posted Nov 05, 2022 at 4:54 pm by Steve

    The most important factors in determining a fuller house and better ticket sales are the repertoire and the conductor (and/or guest soloist) on the program. The cost of tickets and safety concerns (whether they be over COVID or crime/violence) are very minor, compared to the program repertoire and the conductor.

    As others have mentioned, the storied Berlin Philharmonic is coming later this month to perform Mahler for an 8PM weeknight concert, and tickets are almost sold out, with only a remaining few costing $200+. Therefore, excuses about ticket prices and safety/violence concerns in the evening don’t apply here.

    Comparatively, Muti’s concerts sell much better than others—even if there are sometimes “riskier” repertoire choices—as Muti’s name carries significant weight and his interpretations consistently produce revelatory results with the orchestra. People will pay to see and hear famous, renowned conductors lead the orchestra (alongside acclaimed guest soloists) in repertoire that they enjoy.

    As such, it is inevitable that this week’s concerts, with a much less distinguished conductor (Gardner) and programming (Bartok/Vaughan Williams) that isn’t as beloved by the majority of concertgoers in Chicago, will yield many empty seats. The orchestra, its management, and the board must take notice and factor these variables into the search for their next music director.

    As mentioned above, Thielemann’s Bruckner 8 a couple of weeks ago was a great performance, and his status as one of the top conductors today would be consistent with the CSO’s long line of great music directors and principal conductors (Reiner, Solti, Barenboim, Haitink, Boulez, Muti) — but I believe the best approach would be to retain Muti for as long as possible. His relationship with the orchestra and with the community, forged over the past twelve years, is very special. The orchestra’s leadership and the board will come to regret letting him go.

  8. Posted Nov 05, 2022 at 7:53 pm by Howard C

    Friday’s performance was probably about 1/2 capacity. However, I don’t expect every single concert to sell out, especially with less popular works. When crowd-pleasers are on the program, the concerts will sell out and vice versa. The upcoming Berlin Philharmonic concert is nearly sold out so interest is definitely there in classical music.

    I do appreciate concerts like this weekend’s program because it allows the audience to hear the CSO and its marvelous sections to show off their skills in a different light. Yes, I love the more familiar Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, etc., works but after a while it’s nice to hear the CSO in the different ways that the current series allows. Tonight’s program allowed the CSO to showcase its characteristic exquisite pianissimos as well as the muscular fortissimos they are notorious for. Brass accompaniments are prominent but not overbearing. Woodwind playing is especially tender.

    Tetzlaff mirrored these characteristics with his own playing. The CSO is in their own league when playing anything Bartok. I know it’s harder to get out to these concerts but if you don’t come out and listen, you’ll miss these extraordinary moments!

  9. Posted Nov 06, 2022 at 11:56 am by Bill Seliger

    What was the encore Saturday night? I am pretty sure it was not Bach.

  10. Posted Nov 06, 2022 at 1:11 pm by Mark Sheldon

    For me it is simply and sadly Covid. I am a long time subscriber to a seat in the first balcony. I would absolutely otherwise be there. Hopefully next season. I am fully vaxed but also an old guy.

  11. Posted Nov 06, 2022 at 5:31 pm by Tod Verklärung

    An interesting discussion.

    We live in a world where entertainment of all kinds is available almost at the push of a button at home. This was not the case when the combination of Solti & Giulini were Music Director and Principal Guest Conductor 50 years ago.

    For a long time, the CSO has survived on subscriptions of 5 concerts, as opposed to the longer subscriptions of years ago.

    A five-concert subscription, perhaps shared with a friend, means there is less opportunity for those with limited knowledge or interest in classical orchestral music to become acquainted with the works of Bartok and VW, hardly new faces or complex listening challenges for individuals to whom serious music means a great deal.

    With the disappearance of daily local newspapers worth reading, the CSO has had to invest lots of money in advertising. This cost is borne by an audience unable to bear it in a difficult moment in our history.

    No matter his reputation or strengths, the current Music Director will not live forever. Nor does he have the drawing power of the few classical musicians (like Yo-Yo Ma and Gustavo Dudamel) who are able to fill the halls, or notable exceptions like the Berlin Philharmonic.

    It appears that the management personnel of many fine orchestras are without ideas to alter outside forces working against the historical continuation of what some of us have become accustomed to in the cultural life of a great city.

    Nor do I have answers.

    Orchestras performing 52 weeks a year in the USA didn’t exist until the middle of the 20th century. No laws of gods or men guarantee that this will continue.

    One cannot rule out the possibility that baby boomers who care about the live performance of classical music have lived in a Golden Age now passing away.

    I hope I am wrong.

  12. Posted Nov 07, 2022 at 2:13 pm by PMTGRZ

    I’ve little to no desire to hear the Bartok or the Vaughan Williams but I have to admit some disappointment that there was no review of the Xian Zhang led Grieg Piano Concerto featuring the charismatic Trpčeski. It was one of the most electrifying experiences I’ve had at the CSO in quite some time. I attended the Tuesday evening performance and at the end of the first movement an audience member was so filled with some extreme emotion that they vocally GASPED loud enough for the whole hall to hear. Even members of the orchestra were blushing/amused.

    Trpčeski encored with Tchaikovsky’s Autumn Song and it was sentimental and even meditative. It paired nicely with how virtuosic and sensitive his playing was in the Grieg.

    Xian Zhang is easily one of the most exciting guest conductors I’ve seen. It was incredible to watch her attention to detail and then come off the podium and give a down-to-earth fist pump to the concertmaster and associate concertmaster. A truly memorable experience.

  13. Posted Nov 07, 2022 at 8:25 pm by W. L. Weller

    I’m not buying the argument that the beautiful Fifth Symphony of Vaughn Williams is not sufficiently complex or interesting for Chicago’s sophisticated audiences. I was there the last time it was performed and the hall was full.

    There are many reasons why the people are not coming to CSO concerts. Crime, horrendous traffic, ticket prices, parking, and multiple entertainment options are all factors.

    Part of the problem is a general decline of fine arts education in the schools.That has been going on for a long time. It’s unfortunate, because in my experience children are captivated by serious music when given the chance.

  14. Posted Nov 11, 2022 at 9:35 pm by Brian

    I attended the Saturday evening concert. I simply want to say just how incredibly the CSO performed Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony. As an avid fan for years, I made a special trip from Washington, DC just to hear this work because it is not often performed, especially by an orchestra the caliber of the CSO. Pairing the British conductor Edward Gardner was a sublime choice. In particular, I could not believe how delicately and tenderly the winds played their many solos throughout the work.

    This may be considered heresy, but I believe David Cooper is the finest horn player to ever play in the orchestra. His playing was sublime and his artistry is incredible. Just a fun little anecdote – At the end of the performance, Charlie Vernon came over to David, gave him a big hug, and congratulated him on his terrific playing. It warmed my heart that after thousands of performance, Mr. Vernon can still be moved by the performance of his colleagues.

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