CSO musicians shine in a resplendent Mahler farewell with Hrůša 

Fri Jun 09, 2023 at 11:58 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jakub Hrůša conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 was not his final creative statement. The unfinished Tenth—with a substantial Adagio fully orchestrated—stands as his true swan song.

But the epic Ninth Symphony (1909), Mahler’s last completed work, feels very much like a final musical will and testament. The composer had already been diagnosed with the heart disease that would end his life in three years at age 50, and the Ninth is imbued with an intense, elegiac quality. The two-note motif that dominates the opening movement virtually says “Leb wohl” and the symphony seems to bids adieu to earthly life in all its darkness and mendacity as much as its pleasures and beauty.   

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was the sole work on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra program Thursday night, conducted by Jakub Hrůša.

Although the Czech conductor has only led the CSO on two previous occasions (in 2017 and 2021), so successful were those concerts that Hrůša achieved quick popularity with local audiences and, it seems, many CSO musicians.

With the music director job wide open, Hrůša is a sure candidate on any short list of Riccardo Muti successors. An invitation by the orchestra to conduct a long and complex work like Mahler 9 inevitably made this week’s event feel like something of a first interview.

Hrůša, 42, has a dynamic style that makes for an exciting and charismatic podium presence. At tempo accelerations and building to climaxes, his physical windups and lunges were allied to a dizzying baton that rivals Georg Solti in his prime for land-speed velocity.

Outwardly, Mahler’s Ninth is cast in the traditional four movements but that’s where tradition ends. Two vast slow movements frame a sardonic ländler and haunted scherzo in a score that spans 85 minutes.

In the opening Andante comodo Thursday night, the first appearance of the sighing theme that dominates the movement had an uncommonly gentle expression. Hrůša directed the epic movement with an organic flowing quality, spacious yet always on the move. Nothing was overdone or overlooked; the eruptive climaxes went with force and brassy brilliance without blaring.

Hrůša waited patiently for a burbling musical cell phone to stop ringing before starting the second movement.

The inner movements were strongly characterized. In the quasi-ländler, Hrůša conveyed the initial charm of the dancey theme; as the music becomes increasingly agitated he underlined aggressive bite without going over the top or sacrificing an essential Viennese quality. The contrasting lyric sections registered without undue sentiment and the delicate coda went with just the right lilt and piquant charm.

The ensuing Rondo-Burleske crackled with unhinged energy and nerve-wracked desperation. The serene middle section provided balm albeit in a somewhat cool expression.

The vast concluding Adagio is one of Mahler’s finest achievements and the apex of this work. With rich and burnished playing by the strings, the valedictory essence of the main theme was firmly manifest yet unsentimental. Hrůša built the theme’s overlapping string waves to a resplendent climax. 

Halfway through the long, hushed diminuendo a loud unmuffled cough by an audience member crashed into the reverie. It may be time to bring back the death penalty in Illinois.

Yet Hrůša and the CSO maintained concentration despite the jarring disruption. Mahler’s lingering farewell was handled with great sensitivity by all as the ebbing string phrases slowly faded to silence. The conductor held it for an extended minute before lowering his hands. 

Interpretively, this was an estimable Mahler Ninth by any measure. Hrůša’s pacing was exemplary, tuttis imposing and balancing skillful with great clarity to textures. Crucial instrumental lines were always audible when they needed to be.

And yet one came away from Thursday’s performance more impressed with the playing than moved by the music. In this, one of Mahler’s most deeply felt scores, there was often a curious lack of expressive engagement. While skillfully directed by Hrůša, the deeper emotions were held at arm’s length, with many passages of existential bleakness left unexplored.

Overall, this felt like a young conductor’s Ninth, more literal than lived-in. Hrůša’s Mahler will likely grow in depth and nuance with time and further performances. (Note: Hrůša will return for two weeks of concerts with the CSO in March of 2024.)

Ultimately, it was the CSO’s night to shine in this intensely challenging score and all musicians were at their considerable finest—as an ensemble, by section and individually. 

Primus inter pares was principal horn David Cooper, who delivered a virtual seminar in Mahler playing—finely polished, sensitive to dynamics and providing the most beautiful and expressive moments of the night. His section colleagues were on a comparable level.

Other standout solo work was delivered by guest principal violist Teng Li of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, principal bassoon Keith Buncke, principal trumpet Esteban Batallán, and concertmaster Robert Chen. The CSO strings en masse were extraordinary in the final pages, playing with acute concentration and rarefied sensitivity down to a barely audible triple pianissimo.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. cso.org

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Posted in Performances

25 Responses to “CSO musicians shine in a resplendent Mahler farewell with Hrůša ”

  1. Posted Jun 09, 2023 at 12:14 pm by Brad

    An extraordinary performance for sure. This conductor already has a strong connection with the orchestra and public it seems.

    I sat in the terrace, and that cough you mentioned rang out from someone on the main floor. Inexcusable and completely uncalled for. I’ve nearly had it with audiences at Orchestra Hall. Sit there and shut up, or leave/don’t come.

  2. Posted Jun 09, 2023 at 1:03 pm by jburgdorfer

    A wonderful concert and very fine review. For me, however, the elephant in the hall was — how in the world could the cso not grant tenure to David Cooper. He was, as usual, fabulous, and the roar of approval from the audience should echo large with whomever is in charge.

  3. Posted Jun 09, 2023 at 2:43 pm by Bill Bartelt

    These coughers must be regulars who bring their own sheet music to know the best moments in the score to let out their throaty blasts and ruin it for everyone.

  4. Posted Jun 09, 2023 at 3:19 pm by Randy Wilson

    I felt this night of music in my soul. Mahler is not my everyday favorite. I think his music is best perceived live.

    Boy, was this a demonstration of that principle. I felt that Hruska was an intelligent guide through the piece. As the reviewer commented this performance was perhaps more about the score than than Mahler’s tide of emotions. The performances held me aloft and 87 minutes raced by.

    I’ll join the other commenter regarding soloists and especially David Cooper. Fix your tenure problem, Chicago.

    My favorite Mahler 9 and I expect no better from now on.

  5. Posted Jun 09, 2023 at 3:54 pm by Peter Borich

    One of the best CSO concerts I have attended during my 40 years of concert-going. Solti-esque indeed and I found the last movement to be emotionally searing. Bravo!

  6. Posted Jun 09, 2023 at 4:19 pm by John

    I strongly disagree. This was one of the most disappointing performances of the year. Mahler’s great Ninth, one of my favorites, was turned into a blaring, raucous piece of bombast without nuance. Everything was overloaded. Even the CSO’s magnificent brass section was made to sound, well, brassy instead of their usual warmth.

  7. Posted Jun 09, 2023 at 5:59 pm by Kane

    The performance was great, but the coughing was just too much.

    Even worse, I was sitting on the Main Floor, and three dudes sitting in front of me murmured to each other Within Movements! Especially by the end of the 4th movement when the emotion is transcending, they said “I’m pretty sure this is the ending,” and completely ruined it for me. I’ve never met someone as rude as this.

  8. Posted Jun 09, 2023 at 7:14 pm by Jim

    I have to agree that this performance was far from perfect. There were definitely some amazing moments and David Cooper is truly a spectacular player. However, I was extremely disappointed in the trombones. As a trombone player myself I might be overly critical but they did not put on a very good show.

    In regards to the coughers: come on, if you have to cough, cough but do it quietly and at least hold it until a louder moment.

  9. Posted Jun 09, 2023 at 8:54 pm by RJB

    I was happy for David Cooper, not only that he played so magnificently, but that his performance was so visibly appreciated by his colleagues in the orchestra.

    I’m also happy for Jakob Hrusa that perhaps at his young age, he isn’t preoccupied with the finiteness of earthly life that we older people know all too well. I found the whole performance breathless and missing the stillness/bleakness/melancholic serenity/resignation that some passages call for. The same thought had come to me as to the reviewer: maybe he is just a bit too young to conduct this piece.

    Unexpectedly, I spent the concert focusing on the technical playing of the orchestra but not much involved with the music. I heard Hrusa in Coleridge-Taylor, Barber, and Dvorak—he was outstanding, and I will be happy to hear him again, but I’m not sure that Mahler 9 is his piece (or at least not yet).

  10. Posted Jun 10, 2023 at 4:49 am by Chuck

    I can’t think of a worse time to audibly cough than at the end of the Mahler 9th Symphony. The utter and profound silence that occurs after the music has stopped and the conductor’s arms are raised and motionless for the longest time is part of the performance.

    I happened to be sitting near the woman who let out that cough. My recollection is that it occurred after the music had concluded and about midway through the holy silence that follows, while the conductor’s arms are raised and motionless. I was sitting close enough to her to witness her body shaking while struggling mightily to suppress audible coughing. She was “coughing internally” repeatedly for the longest time during the silence. I may have been the only one in the audience to observe this as there were empty seats nearby. It was painful to witness the struggle, which became more dire as time went on.

    I didn’t think she would be able to keep it up until the conductor’s arms were lowered and I was right. Finally, she could no longer contain it and let out what we all unfortunately had to hear. Muffling it when it came out would have helped, but I think her entire focus was to not let it out in the first place.

    When the conductor lowered his arms and the loud extended applause occurred the woman went into a long coughing fit that was overwhelmed by the loudness of the applause. She must have been grateful for that.

  11. Posted Jun 10, 2023 at 7:44 am by Ely

    It is not always possible to control a cough and they can come unexpectedly . That says ppl should not attend if sick …

  12. Posted Jun 10, 2023 at 9:32 am by Roger

    One of many highlights during Thursday night’s performance of Mahler 9 was the solos performed by the orchestra’s principals. Particularly, the viola solo performed by guest principal violist Teng Li and the wonderful horn played by David Cooper. As noted, both received highly acknowledged applause from an appreciative audience.

    Why Cooper has not been granted tenure is puzzling. Frankly, Cooper has become an audience favorite. Cooper is now being considered to fill the position of Associate Principal Horn with the La Philharmonic. If so, the CSO’s loss is LA’s gain! Sad! Subscribers deserve an explanation WHY!

    As the review and submitted comments noted, Maestro Hrusa conducted a very intense 9th. Personally, I would have preferred a less intense interpretation. That said, Hrusa is a most welcome guest conductor and a candidate worthy to succeed Muti!

  13. Posted Jun 10, 2023 at 12:53 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    As detailed in the review, the cough in question came minutes from the end, not in the silence after the performance had concluded.

  14. Posted Jun 10, 2023 at 1:36 pm by niloiv

    I agree that this isn’t a Mahler 9 for the ages (like for example Giulini’s CSO recording). There were places that, for my taste, could benefit from a bit more breadth of rhythm and color contrast.

    Among the often mentioned potential Muti successors, I have a slight preference for Hrusa. If this was indeed a ‘first interview’ concert, maybe a Dvorak program would have been a safer choice than Mahler 9, but I do appreciate the challenge he took on, especially near the end of the season.

    As mentioned in the review, there were quite a bit of highlights in solo playing, especially from David Cooper and Teng Li, who played with such dedication. I sat in the terrace and was wondering who that was for the whole time!

    For those who went to the Thursday concert and think the cough is bad enough, on Friday night a phone starting ringing during the last minutes of the symphony, with a mid-2000’s Nokia tune. That almost gave me the same arrhythmia that Mahler had!

  15. Posted Jun 10, 2023 at 8:42 pm by CA

    There was a fair amount of audience weirdness on Thursday night including people leaving at odd times and people running up and down the stairs during the music. I take it as a sign that efforts to fill the seats with new attendees are successful… annoying but not like having a shoe squeaker behind your head all night.

    Re: David Cooper- he clearly deserves the top spot in one of the world’s top orchestras, but I’m afraid it’s not going to be Chicago, or at least not for many years until most of the current section members have aged out.

    As to the overall interpretation and Hrůša’s chops as a Mahler conductor– you have to keep in mind that this group is rarely interested in pleasing guest conductors…I really think you would need to see what he’s able to do after working with CSO for several years, and also with a little more rehearsal time.

    I would have been interested to see if he was a little more successful on Friday or Saturday in getting the orchestra to come with him.

  16. Posted Jun 10, 2023 at 11:24 pm by Yourvoice

    A fabulous concert Friday and even more magnificent Saturday night. Hrusa got better every concert.

    Also got my attention was guest viola Teng Li; she is phenomenal. Wouldn’t be surprised if she wins the position.

    Tonight, David Cooper received a standing ovation from his own colleagues. I have never seen the musicians stand in front of a pal before. Well deserved!!!

    Mr. Cooper, if you read this know that CSO is making their biggest mistake not granting you tenure.

  17. Posted Jun 10, 2023 at 11:33 pm by Andrew Dogan

    One of the best CSO performances I’ve been to in my life. The Adagio was slightly faster than one may have wanted but I found Hrusa’s interpretation to be otherwise stellar.

    Let’s dispense with this nonsense that younger conductors don’t yet get Mahler or Bruckner; the orchestra gave him all they could. I’m hoping the CSO found its next music director this weekend.

  18. Posted Jun 10, 2023 at 11:53 pm by Howard C

    Mahler symphony interpretations can be more of a clean, classical style on one end or at the other end extremely emotive. Although Hrusa’s interpretation was less emotive as a whole, it provided a backdrop for the solo parts to sing and stand out. I see it as a fresh and clever way to approach music that could have been presented in a more familiar but less interesting manner. Hrusa is definitely a potential keeper.

    During Saturday’s performance, David Cooper definitely received the loudest cheers and one of the clarinetists stood up from his chair on stage to join the ovation! Were the differences really so irreconcilable such that they would allow such rare talent to escape?

  19. Posted Jun 11, 2023 at 12:36 am by Daniel Bowling III

    Please back off on the “evil” cougher. We should expand engagement with the CSO rather than exclude. And you wonder why classical music might be dying.

  20. Posted Jun 11, 2023 at 5:15 am by Argyle1

    I was in attendance Thursday night, and the acclaim from the audience when Jakub Hrusa motioned to David Cooper for a solo bow could only be described as explosive. In forty years I have never heard such an ovation at Orchestra Hall.

    The denial of tenure to Mr. Cooper is one of several extremely stupid decisions by the CSO in recent years, and we can only hope that they don’t blow it again with their choice of their next music director.

    You could do a lot worse than the man who conducted the Mahler; as with Georg Solti, he also hangs his hat at the Royal Opera Covent Garden, which is perhaps a good omen for us.

  21. Posted Jun 11, 2023 at 9:48 am by Nicholas K

    Coughs and sneezes ruined the ending once again for the Saturday evening concert. But overall it was a wonderful performance. I agree with previous comments that some shadings, emotions and depths of feeling were missing in the interpretation. Like Makaela’s Fifth back in February, Hrusa has time in front of him to mature in his work.

    But Hrusa is farther ahead and I would not mind him being the next Music Director.

  22. Posted Jun 11, 2023 at 10:48 am by Aaron

    I think I’ve seen Mahler 9 five times now. I think in all five attempts there has been some egregious audience disruption near the end of the final movement. The cell phone ring at the end of the Friday performance continued the streak.

    My high school tennis coach used to say that once is luck, twice is coincidence, three times is skill. I would add now that four may mean a curse and five probably means fate.

    The music at the end may just be too deep to hold up in a crowded room. The standard “as a courtesy to the performers” announcement is just blah blah blah, like the safety instructions nobody pays attention to before a flight takes off.

    The only way this could be prevented is if someone gets up on the stage before they start playing and tells the audience that the music will be really quiet at certain moments, and that loud noises and cell phones will throw it off. They need to say that the audience is making the difference — are part of the performance — by honoring these moments.

    I don’t think this will ever happen though. Orchestras are too afraid of seeming snobby. So the concert hall may not ever get the last movement for real.

  23. Posted Jun 11, 2023 at 4:24 pm by Richard T

    Re: Howard C’s and other comments about the Sat concert

    For the record, it was John Bruce Yeh who gave Cooper the standing ovation. Many of the other members were also clapping wildly for him when it was his turn.

    Also for the record, Hrusa made a point of not missing any section leader when he asked each one to stand. Not only that, he forged his way as far back as he could, to shake hands personally with the principal bass, and with each of the four principal winds. I don’t know if this gesture of collegiality was made as well on Thurs or Fri, or if it was only on Sat night, being the final concert of this series.

    The guest viola and the principal horn have been mentioned many times in these comments, but in fact, everyone covered himself in glory-even those who had less showy parts. I am thinking for instance of Jennifer Gunn’s astounding suppleness and softness in many complicated passages of the work.

    This is not heart-on-sleeves emotiveness and drama in the sense of Bernstein, nor would I go as far as to call this some kind of return to a romantic approach, but Hrusa very clearly puts a heavy emphasis on maximum expressiveness of each and every individual phrase. This is very different from the way we are used to hearing Mahler at Orchestra Hall (think: Solti, Abbado, Barenboim, Boulez, Haitink) where the music tends to be treated as great masses and abstractions of sound.

    This is my first time to hear Hrusa, so I have no opinion on whether or not he would make a good Music Director. But yes, the performance was very impressive indeed.

  24. Posted Jun 12, 2023 at 10:45 am by Deron

    It’s so very disappointing to see the orchestra I grew up loving make such bad decisions. I was at the Friday performance. I’ve never heard horn playing that good and I’ve been listening to classical music for over 40 years and have been attending CSO concerts since the mid 90s.

  25. Posted Jun 14, 2023 at 2:44 pm by Mark

    In recent years, Hrusa has been leading some of the top orchestras in the world. Certainly not as long as when recent CSO MDs were appointed, but that should not discount his prospects.

    He’s much more personable than the prior CSO MDs, and would stand a good chance of energizing the audience base in Chicago. He doesn’t come across as regal and aloof like some conductors. That might have worked in the past, but the world has changed.

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