Chen presides expertly over CSO’s warmly intimate Bach

Fri Mar 29, 2024 at 11:37 am

By Tim Sawyier

Robert Chen and William Welter were the soloists in Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin Thursday night with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

While speculation swirls around who will be the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s next music director, Thursday night’s CSO performance served as a reminder that a conductor is not a prerequisite for a gratifying evening at Orchestra Hall. Concertmaster Robert Chen served as “leader” and soloist in an evening of elevated performances of Bach-family music that underscored the ability of elite ensembles to handle their own musical affairs in certain repertoire.

Chen was in the solo spotlight in two concertante works, the first of which was the Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, which closed the first half. He weaved artfully in and out of the larger orchestral texture in the opening Allegro, sensitively heeding when the harmonic and melodic interest were in the tutti parts. Chen brought a sustained lyricism to the Adagio, though there is more pathos to be found in this searching aria than was apparent on Thursday. The longtime dean of the CSO violin section stylistically led by example in the sunny Allegro assai, earning warm applause from audience and colleagues alike, clearly in response both to the evening’s solo efforts and to his decades of leadership.

In the second half Chen was joined by principal oboe William Welter for Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor, which was far and away the evening highlight. Chen and Welter made a simpatico pair of soloists, naturally playing off of each other’s interweaving solo lines in the opening Allegro. Welter’s playing was particularly inspired as the two sang an intimate duet over the Adagio’s pizzicato accompaniment; Chen dispatched the cinale’s swirling sextuplets with virtuosic aplomb. The duo was greeted with an immediate standing ovation, which had the warm feel of cheering for the home team.

The C Minor Concerto was framed by two works for slightly larger orchestral forces. The Sinfonia in E-flat Major of C. P. E Bach was heard in its first Chicago Symphony performance to open the second half. A tripartite work with fleet outer prestos framing a central larghetto, this sinfonia—like the composer’s other examples in the genre—is a clear precursor to the Classical symphonies of Haydn. Operating without a conductor, Thursday’s performance had a palpable feel of enlarged chamber music, the CSO musicians naturally responding to each other under Chen’s understated but assured leadership from the first chair

The evening closed with J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1, with Welter back in the principal chair immediately following his concerto outing. The spacious Overture was thoughtfully inflected in the French style, and the three winds—oboists Welter and Scott Hostetler, plus bassoonist William Buchman—achieved a superb reedy blend, as they would throughout. 

The ensuing dances went with apt courtly elegance, the varied instrumental combinations providing appropriate contrast. The ensemble brought an inviting warmth to the second Menuet, and a restrained nobility to the closing Passepieds. One wished they had ended on the latter, rather than the over-caffeinated, almost manic reprise of a Bourrée strain, which they presumably opted for to end the night with a bang.

The program opened with the inescapable Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major. While the work has achieved ringtone status, its ubiquity can mask the enormous ingenuity of Bach’s writing. Chen set the tone of poised, understated leadership he would bring to the entire evening, presiding over a bustling conversation among equals in the vigorously contrapuntal outer movements. The two-chord “Adagio” is always something of a question mark, but this was handled beautifully with an eloquent keyboard interpolation from harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner.

At intermission, one audience member opined, “A shame it’s so empty.” Indeed, it is that such an engaging evening was played to only a half-full house.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Chen presides expertly over CSO’s warmly intimate Bach”

  1. Posted Mar 29, 2024 at 4:39 pm by P.Ryan

    Exquisite evening of beautiful music and playing by the CSO. Mr. Chen has long been a favorite of mine. His playing was straight from heaven. Mr. Welter was equally exquisite in his playing. The first 2 pieces are favorites of mine and I was brought to tears by the sheer beauty of the music. A glorious evening of music.

  2. Posted Mar 29, 2024 at 8:06 pm by John B

    FWIW the Friday matinee was almost full for a very satifying concert.

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