CSO returns from European tour with two debuts and uneven results 

Fri Feb 09, 2024 at 12:02 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gemma New conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night in music of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Kernis. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo

It had to happen at some point in 2024 and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra actually played a concert in Chicago for the first time this year Thursday night.

The orchestra, led by Riccardo Muti, received largely positive reviews on its extensive European tour last month—as well as local hosannas from the usual Muti acolytes. Still, with the CSO’s last Chicago concert taking place December 23, one can hardly blame local concertgoers for feeling a bit like the redheaded stepson.

With debuts by a pair of highly praised young artists, this week’s program looked strong on paper. Yet whether due to tour fatigue, a lack of chemistry with the evening’s conductor, or both, Thursday night’s CSO concert presented mixed results at best.

Currently in her ninth season as music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada, Gemma New is also principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. She made a storybook Chicago debut in 2017 as a last-minute sub for Simone Young at the Grant Park Music Festival. The concert featured Symphonia domestica, no less, and New’s assured direction of Richard Strauss’s epic tone-poem was impressive enough to result in her being invited back the following summer

She led off her Orchestra Hall debut with Musica Celestis by Aaron Jay Kernis, heard in its belated CSO premiere. This transcription of the eponymous slow movement from the American composer’s 1990 String Quartet No. 1 remains Kernis’s most-played work, inspired by medieval music generally and Hildegard von Bingen particularly.

New is a graceful podium presence, and the youthful New Zealand native directed the strings with flowing, coaxing gestures in this 11-minute work. She had the score firmly in hand and drew out the serene Barber-like solace with a wide range of dynamics from the ethereal opening to the bustling middle section. New underlined the rapt, spiritual essence of this music and, with superb playing by the CSO strings, delivered the finest performance of the evening in Kernis’s radiant music.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 was in reality his fifth and final work in the genre and arguably, his best. The “Scottish” symphony effectively mines local Caledonian color in four varied movements, chockablock with indelible melodies and crafted with the composer’s distinctive blend of skill and idiosyncrasy. 

Here too, New seemed to have a handle on the score, yet the results proved less successful. Thursday’s performance centered on a kind of generalized bluster, dynamics hovering mostly at an unvaried forte. There was little austere mystery in the introduction to the first movement and the stormy Allegro agitato proceeded in a foursquare fashion with dutiful playing and raw, ill-blended tuttis. Stephen Williamson perked things up in the piping Scherzo with his burbling, characterful clarinet solo, echoed by William Welter’s oboe.

The Adagio unfolded in by-the-numbers fashion without much dynamic or expressive detailing. The performance sprang to life in the finale, with New whipping up some belated warring-clan intensity. There were more worthy contributions from the front-desk winds, and the horns soared majestically in the affirmative closing theme. Still, considering the rich vein of potential riches to be explored in this music, this was overall an uneven Mendelssohn outing.

The centerpiece of the evening was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No, 3 with Seong-Jin Cho making his CSO debut as solo protagonist.

Anyone unaware of Cho’s cult-like popularity got a taste of it at the concert’s conclusion, as exiting patrons were nearly knocked down by young Korean women sprinting up the stairs for the pianist’s CD signing in the Grainger ballroom.

Cho made a rock-star Chicago debut six years ago when his recital at Mandel Hall likewise packed the venue with young, female and adulatory fans, a far cry from the usual older, sedate UChicago audience.

Seong-Jin Cho performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Thursday night in his CSO debut. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo

The 29-year-old soloist’s playing Thursday night was as polished and technically airtight as one would expect of a Chopin Competition winner (2015). Tempos were reasonable and coordination between piano and orchestra mostly on target in a middle-of-the-road interpretation.

Cho brought some fire to the close of the first-movement cadenza, and the Rondo came off best with the soloist in sync with the relaxed bonhomie of Beethoven’s skipping theme and chuckle-chuckle humor. And give him credit for not playing along with the orchestra’s final tutti as so many do.

Yet while fluent and accomplished, this was a lackluster CSO debut. Cho never probed beneath the notes or offered anything interesting or particularly individual; he bought little nuance or inward expression to the Largo—one of Beethoven’s deepest slow movements. New’s accompaniment was lithe and attentive though too often lacking in weight and incisiveness.

Of course, Cho’s many fans who packed the hall awarded him a tumultuous ovation as if we were hearing Artur Schnabel in his prime. The pianist obliged with an encore of the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata in C Minor (No. 8); here too his blandly straightforward playing and heavy left hand found surprisingly little depth of feeling in this famous music.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday. cso.org

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “CSO returns from European tour with two debuts and uneven results ”

  1. Posted Feb 09, 2024 at 4:06 pm by Roger T

    I would underscore the lack of finesse in the Mendelssohn. The lower horns lost their usual sense of balance and blend, and tended toward a totally uncharacteristic blaring. I fault Gemma New for failing to keep the horns integrated into the orchestra.

  2. Posted Feb 10, 2024 at 9:00 pm by Subscrber

    Attending Thursday evening performance, I certainly concur with Roger T’s comments. The Scottish Symphony features some very beautiful, lyrical themes for horns. In the final movement, the horns sounded very brazen and metallic instead of melodious.

    Since the latter days of the Clevenger era, the horn section has not been the same. While searching for a new principal, Daniel Gingrich led the section capably living up to its reputation. Cooper was excellent while he lasted. Now the future is very hazy for the section. The CSO’s weak link.

  3. Posted Feb 10, 2024 at 10:30 pm by Robert Eisenberg

    We heard the Saturday evening performance and it obviously had benefitted from the extra performances, and perhaps rehearsals and personal practicing since the performance Mr. Johnson heard.

    Most important extra comment was about the quality of Ms New’s conducting. I have been listening to performances of Beethoven Piano Concertos for about sixty years, and Gemma New did more and better than anyone I have heard, New York, Boston, London, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Vienna, and Prague. Her phrasing and lyricism, and dynamic range were just fabulous, without drawing attention from the soloist.

    The orchestra and conductor had their act together for the Scottish Symphony and the horns in particular could not be faulted, indeed handled the loud end chords with beauty as well as strength.

    I hope the orchestra and management were as impressed with Ms New as I and my friends were. I hope she will return soon and for longer engagements.

  4. Posted Feb 11, 2024 at 12:24 am by Steve R.

    At Saturday’s performance of this program I enjoyed the Kernis most.

    As described in this review, Cho’s technique was impressive, but he fell short in expressiveness with some of the greatest piano material ever.

    What was most disturbing about the evening was the conductor’s ongoing attempts to upstage the orchestra with her exaggerated gestures and dances. Such theatrics should have no place on the Orchestra Hall stage with the CSO. Unless she learns to tone it down, I won’t look forward to her return.

    I imagine it might have been hard for the orchestra to take after spending the last month on their tour with Muti.

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