Boccherini, guitar rarities on tap in low-key CSO program

Fri Mar 31, 2023 at 11:36 am

By Tim Sawyier

Guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas was a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Bernard Labadie Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In 2014, Bernard Labadie was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma. The early music specialist and longtime director of Les Violons du Roy endured a harrowing host of treatments, including a month in an induced coma.

With this backstory, it was moving to see the Canadian conductor take the stage with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night for his first performances since a 2015 Messiah, performances which remarkably followed on the heels of his arduous treatments. Thursday’s results were flatter than on that occasion, but Labadie’s continued recovery remains inspiring.

The evening opened with Luigi Boccherini’s Symphony No. 26 in C Minor, which the orchestra last offered under Carlo Maria Giulini in 1958, five years before Labadie was born. Scored for strings with pairs of oboes, bassoons, and horns, the work is cast in a comely 18th-century vein and has a wistful quality that makes a contrast with Haydn’s voluminous output in the genre.

Second oboe Lora Schaefer was sitting principal (the section is down a player following Michael Henoch’s retirement last summer), and was a standout in her prominent solo parts. She played with a full glowing timbre and sensitive phrasing in the earnest Pastorale, and was a poised leader in the Minuetto’s trio section, a hunting serenade for the six winds.

Labadie conducted while seated, the third CSO guest conductor to do so in the past month. Still, he subtly projected alert energy with his understated leadership, injecting needed vigor into Boccherini’s unassuming score. Unfortunately, as is becoming distressingly common, the audience applauded between each brief movement, disrupting the continuity of the performance.

Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas was the evening’s soloist, and was apparently chagrined by this also. After taking the stage, he warmly gave a brief speech about how a piece of music is like a “book with different chapters,” gently encouraging everyone to stay quiet between the even briefer movements of the ensuing Vivaldi Guitar Concerto in D Major.

In a probably apocryphal anecdote, Vivaldi claimed he could compose a new concerto faster than a copyist could write out an existing one, and the superficial outer movements of Thursday’s Guitar Concerto made this boast easier to believe. In addition to the perfunctory writing, Sáinz-Villegas’ timbre was often lost in even the spare continuo accompaniments, making one wonder whether including a harpsichord was the wisest choice here. The luminous central Largo was a different story, with the Spaniard lofting an arioso melody with remarkable line on his plucked instrument.

Sáinz-Villegas returned for the first CSO performances of Boccherini’s Introduction and Fandango from Guitar Quintet No. 4, in an arrangement by Juan Carlos Cuello. After a spacious opening paragraph, the performance felt subdued, with little of the dance energy one was expecting. Even Cynthia Yeh’s short castanet enhancement was not enough to make this sleepy outing feel worth its eight minutes.

By way of an encore, Sáinz-Villegas offered Francisco Tárrega’s Gran jota, a virtuosic romp that felt like a Spanish take on the Carnival of Venice. He brought flair to the show-off work’s extended techniques, creating effects hard to imagine on the instrument, especially in a section that was a convincing evocation of a snare drum.

Labadie led a straightforward performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in the second half, which was again punctuated with applause asfter each movement. There was the hypnotic rush of the opening, but the harmonic twists and other details of the Molto allegro felt glossed over. The Andante was gracious at times, adorned with eloquent solos from the principal winds, but ultimately lacked sustained drama. The closing Menuetto and Allegro assai were likewise spirited, but not enough to raise the performance above  the routine.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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4 Responses to “Boccherini, guitar rarities on tap in low-key CSO program”

  1. Posted Apr 01, 2023 at 12:29 am by Randy Wilson

    For the first half I sat with the students in the upper balcony who applauded after each movement and I can say that the last thing on anybody’s mind up there was Boccherini.

    I sat with more attentive listeners for the second half and thought the Mozart went pretty great.

  2. Posted Apr 01, 2023 at 6:50 am by robert meeker

    The Thursday performance was attended by a large number of high school students who were uninformed by their teachers of proper concert etiquette. I blame the teachers.

    Keep telling yourself- this is the future audience and must be encouraged to attend and appreciate classical music.

  3. Posted Apr 01, 2023 at 12:37 pm by Jerry Meites

    Applause between movements is an ongoing problem which does, indeed, break up the continuity of the piece. The CSO could go a long way toward addressing that problem if it included a brief, respectful sentence such as “Please refrain from applauding until each piece is concluded,” on the page of the program book on which the program is listed.

    Music of the Baroque does this for its Holiday Concerts (though not the rest of its concerts) and it works.

  4. Posted Apr 05, 2023 at 10:46 am by Richard

    I was at the concert last night (Tuesday) and can report that the applause between movements went on till the very end. This was the first time this has happened to me since I started attending during the final Solti years, so I found it astonishing. Typically, “wayward” applause would start with a single person, spread in a localized area, ending when it stops finding a more general response. But the applause yesterday was widespread. I was seated under the overhang in orchestra and so can’t tell what was happening in the upper floors but from my seat, I can see that there was clapping throughout the main floor.

    I can still remember the rapt, awesome silence which went on for what seemed like forever until Thielemann chose to lower his arms at the end of the Bruckner last fall. So this behavior was very perplexing to me. Was it students? Was it tourists? Was it crossover guitar enthusiasts? Do people really love Boccherini that much more than they do Bruckner?

    There were hardly any of the high school students reported by the commenter above. But there were a lot of twenty-and thirty-somethings. Has anyone else noticed that audience since the end of the pandemic has seemed more age-diverse? It used to be that 75 years old seemed to be the average age in the orchestra section. (It was also about 85% full last night-very healthy, I think). I think it has also “felt” more diverse in a general way (more visible tattoos etc). If I am not imagining this, then it would be a welcome development, even if it comes at the price of applause between movements.

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