Hrůša, CSO deliver a season highlight with bracing central European works 

Fri Mar 15, 2024 at 12:43 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jakub Hrůša conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Strauss, Martinů and Bartók Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

For those handicapping the race for music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra things got a bit more interesting on Thursday morning. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen announced he is resigning from the San Francisco Symphony at the end of the 2024-25 season. “I have decided not to continue as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, because I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does,” said the Finnish conductor in a released statement. Reportedly, the cancellation of a European tour and other artistic cutbacks were the reasons for his decision.

Salonen is among the finest and most popular of regular CSO podium guests and has been a fixture on any informed short list of potential successors to Riccardo Muti. The fact that he will be free in the fall of 2025 gave local EPS fans a thrill up the leg since his availability could make him a more plausible candidate for music director.

But on Tuesday Salonen cancelled his scheduled May CSO appearance—leading Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, no less—so he could receive the Polar Music Prize the same week in Stockholm. That doesn’t sound much like someone who is interested in building a closer relationship with the CSO.

Jakub Hrůša may not turn out to be the next music director of the CSO either. But Thursday night’s concert—the second and final week of the Czech conductor’s March stand—proved even more exciting and successful than last week’s performances with a refreshingly offbeat program played with intensity and panache. 

Hrůša received notably enthusiastic audience ovations Thursday night—not only after the performances but upon his entrances, including vociferous cheers. In recent years such greetings have been reserved almost exclusively for Muti. There was a palpable sense for the first time that a Jakub Hrůša era in Chicago could conceivably become a real thing.

It’s not often that a concert opens with Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra—in fact, never in this listener’s experience. After the basses and organ set the scene for the opening “Sunrise,” Hrůša led a majestic account of the famous fanfare marred somewhat by an over-literal brass dropout in the climactic passage.

After that, the conductor didn’t put a foot wrong, building on the notice he gave of being a superb Straussian with last week’s Tod und Verklärung. Hrůša led a whipcrack traversal that invested Strauss’s musical cheaters’ guide to Nietszche with hurtling momentum while making each section register fully.

The warmly moulded strings of the “Backworldsmen” took the edge off the sardonic diss of religious believers, while “Joys and Passions” was aptly fervent, with impressively bravura horns. Strauss’s quasi-serial fugue in “Of Science” emerged strikingly fresh and spacious, arising from the depths of the basses, while “The Convalescent” built inexorably to a massive and imposing restatement of the three-note motto.

Robert Chen’s violin solo in the “Tanzlied” was typically elegant and technically immaculate if lacking something in Viennese swagger for Strauss’s waltzing Übermensch. Chen and Stephanie Jeong were excellent, however, in the quiet penultimate section. Hrůša ensured the slowdown and hushed ending registered effectively as the alternating high winds and basses made clear that the philosophic questions remain unanswered. Too bad about the loud stage noise in the final moment of the performance.

Bohuslav Martinů remains one of the most criminally neglected of 20th-century composers. He was astoundingly prolific, writing six symphonies, over two-dozen concertos, 15 operas, 14 ballets, choral music and a dizzying amount of chamber works including eight string quartets—all with a consistently high quality of invention. Kudos to Hrůša for bringing the music of his countryman to Chicago audiences this week with Martinů’s Violin Concerto No. 1. 

Hrůša, who has recorded both Martinů violin concertos with Franz Peter Zimmermann on the Bis label, could hardly have chosen a more apt work to revive with the CSO. Though written in 1933, the concerto was never played and considered lost for four decades until Sir Georg Solti gave the belated world premiere with the CSO in 1973 with Josef Suk as soloist.

The concerto is characteristic of Martinů in its bustling Neo-Classicism with occasional nods to Stravinsky. Yet other elements are Martinů’s own, such at the fleeting pastoralism and the sheer quirkiness of the writing, both rhythmically and in the rapid-fire contrasts of material.

Josef Špaček performed Bohuslav Martinů’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in his CSO debut Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Making his CSO debut, Josef Špaček proved a sterling solo advocate for this strange yet oddly endearing score. The Czech violinist was fully in synch with the motoric opening movement, his steely technique handling the angular bonhomie as surely as the passing lyrical strains. In the Andante, Špaček rendered the lovely main theme with a beguiling tenderness and sweetness of tone that recalled Suk, his illustrious predecessor.

The soloist vaulted through the rough-road bravura of the crazed finale, Špaček and Hrůša ratcheting up the tempo and intensity to a slam-bang coda. With Hrůša and the orchestra backing their soloist with equally vibrant support, this was a brilliant and winning performance, the first by the CSO since the concerto’s premiere 51 years ago. May we hear more of Martinů’s engaging music in seasons to come.

Špaček responded to the clamorous ovations with an equally fizzing encore of Aleksey Igudesman’s Funk the String, morphing his violin convincingly into an electric guitar in a blistering demo of speed and virtuosity. As with Gil Shaham’s encore last week, Hrůša took a harpist’s empty chair onstage to enjoy his compatriot’s solo showpiece.

The evening concluded with the suite from Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin. The 1920s ballet score relates the lurid tale of a criminal quartet that uses a woman to entice unsuspecting men so the trio of thugs can rob them. The victims are an old man, a young student and finally the title mysterious Asian man, who the robbers suffocate, stab and hang but find impossible to kill. Only the woman’s eventual embrace allows the mandarin to die.

Scored for large forces, the 22-minute suite contains most of the half-hour ballet. From the opening urban drive of the oscillating second violins, Hrůša led the orchestra in a vivid, hard-charging performance that brought out the scenario’s incipient violence and eroticism. Bartók’s uninhibited scoring was put across with vehement power and impact, from the aptly strident brass, to the floor-shaking organ pedal points and a harrowing final chase of the mandarin by the criminals. 

Individual highlights abounded, from Stephen Williamson’s sensual-sleazoid clarinet luring of the victims, to William Welter’s plangent oboe painting the naive student. Especially striking was the sassy playing of the trombones—led by the remarkable 84-year-old Jay Friedman whose stellar playing over six decades as principal is pretty miraculous by itself.

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

Posted in Performances

11 Responses to “Hrůša, CSO deliver a season highlight with bracing central European works ”

  1. Posted Mar 15, 2024 at 2:05 pm by Tim

    Knowing what music would be on this program, but failing to first consult my program, it was indeed a surprise to hear the Strauss to start. Yet, considering its famous opening and build, what better way to immediately excite an audience as the baton first falls? This was not only an excitingly eclectic concert, but also one of the most interesting and engaging I’ve attended from CSO across many years.

    After hearing three Hrusa-led performances in recent months, each from a unique orchestra, I would wholeheartedly welcome and appreciate a Jakubian era in Chicago.

    Perhaps, especially, if he were able to truly commit to the city and community beyond the concert hall, his time here might unite us in creating conversations and better building a society through our appreciation for the arts.

  2. Posted Mar 15, 2024 at 2:43 pm by Alan Goldberg

    Back-to-back fabulous concerts conducted by Hrůša. There seems to be a tremendous rapport between him and both the orchestra and the audience. Last night’s entire concert was wonderful, but the conclusion of Miraculous Mandarin was breathtaking.

    One question is whether he would be able to find the time to handle the duties of CSO Music Director given his commitments to the Bamberg Symphony and to Covent Garden.

  3. Posted Mar 15, 2024 at 2:56 pm by Jeff R

    Thursday night’s show was fantastic, particularly the Martinu and Bartok. Great programming and what seems to be a real connection between the conductor and CSO. Hrusa definitely has fans upon entry, plenty of cheers. He would be a welcome addition as the new MD.

    I hope they give him serious consideration. Hrusa’s youth along with the youth showing up to more concerts may keep the party going for many years… I hope so.

  4. Posted Mar 15, 2024 at 3:59 pm by Alan

    Great news about Salonen. He’s been my first pick for MD since Muti retired. Some combination of Hrusa and/or Makela as principal guest conductor would be perfect. Can’t believe that Makela would have much time for the CSO with all his other commitments.

  5. Posted Mar 15, 2024 at 5:43 pm by Cheryl

    I very much appreciate the range of Hrůša’s conducting, from precision and economy, to explosive when it needs to be. The orchestral accompaniment for the Martinu was very fine, and the Bartok unleashed the power of the CSO.

    There is indeed rapport between Hrůša and the audience and the orchestra. With personal charm and vitality that carries so well beyond the stage, and thinking of him perhaps conducting both at the CSO and at the Lyric, it is easy to imagine him being a vital figure for the arts in Chicago, in a way that I am just not feeling with some of the other names mentioned as possible music directors.

  6. Posted Mar 15, 2024 at 6:07 pm by Richard T

    I heard last week’s program three nights ago, on Tuesday and was deeply impressed. I am definitely looking forward to this week’s as well.

    I was also struck by the unusual sequence of the program: making a major Richard Strauss tone poem the appetizer, where one might expect some token bit of Impressionism or a contemporary composer, and then building up to the Lutosławski! But it made sense and was very satisfying. Each piece in the program was carefully differentiated by style yet the whole felt very unified.

    And as superb as the conducting was in both the Strauss and the Lutosławski, it was the slow movement of the Mendelssohn violin concerto that really showed off his excellence. It was so freshly conceived-like an animated conversation with the violin-I thought I was hearing the old warhorse for the first time in my life.

    I would really love to hear him in Lutosławski’s gorgeous Symphony #3, “our” symphony #3, commissioned by CSO a long time ago but rarely played. Of all the major conductors out there now, surely he’s the man to do it right!

  7. Posted Mar 16, 2024 at 1:01 pm by John

    Salonen is a non-starter for Chicago. His emphasis on things like contemporary music, and even the use of high tech innovations in performances, was too much even for San Francisco. Chicago audiences are even more traditional.

  8. Posted Mar 17, 2024 at 12:50 pm by Mike T.

    I like Salonen’s devotion to great contemporary scores, but after hearing last night’s program as well as last week’s, I’m fairly convinced that Jakub Hrusa is a more dynamic conductor at this point.

    The Strauss and Bartok works were both given powerhouse performances and the Martinu concerto was a delightful surprise and discovery. I also loved Spacek’s Rockish encore, Funk the String.

  9. Posted Mar 17, 2024 at 2:31 pm by marie de trujillo

    Having heard Hrusa’s two programs this season as well as the three in the last five years and his Jenufa at the Lyric, it is perfectly clear that he is one of the best if not the best younger conductor out there. His energy is phenomenal; not one of the his CSO concerts was routine. The players clearly love him and are ignited with energy and passion under his baton. After the most recent two weeks, one is reminded that the CSO on a good day is indeed the best orchestra in the country. For the CSO’s selection committee to let him go would border on the tragic.

    The other leading candidate is gifted but way overcommitted and his recordings are dull. By contrast Hrusa’s Mahler 4, Bruckner 4 and Rott 1 (all with the Bamberger Orchestra) are first rate. With a great orchestra, these could be milestones. For once we would hope the CSO makes the right decision, which has not been true of late.

  10. Posted Mar 18, 2024 at 6:18 am by Chuck

    I was at Friday’s matinee concert. Blown away! I could not agree more about the need to hear more of Martinů’s music (too bad there is nothing on next year’s schedule). I would also like to hear violinist Josef Špaček again, the sooner the better.

  11. Posted Mar 18, 2024 at 1:01 pm by Mike

    I saw both of Hrusa’s Thursday performances reviewed here, as well as the Mahler 9 last season where the lady coughed at the end during the quiet part. I agree with everyone here – they were fantastic. I deliberately did not listen to the Martinu prior to the concert and I think that turned out to be my favorite of the six works from the past two weeks, although it’s hard to argue against how cranked up Hrusa got that Lutoslawski Concerto by the end.

    Hrusa is my first choice by far. I can’t imagine there’s a better fit for the CSO. If Hrusa is willing to take this job I don’t get why CSOA would even consider anyone else. Hrusa has been turning in blockbuster performance after blockbuster performance no matter who shows up to play. I watch him on the podium and it’s totally obvious even to me in the audience what’s supposed to be happening with the music and which instrument group or soloist to look at next.

    Another classical music news site seems to think this is a 100% done deal for Makela. I don’t know what the rationale for that would be. I’d prefer Malkki, Honeck, or Salonen to Makela.

    Obviously Salonen is out of the running if he’s dropping out of Mahler 2. I’d be thrilled if Hrusa (who appears to be free on Mahler 2 weekend) rides to the rescue of yet another show at Symphony Center but if CSO has hired someone else by that point I don’t know why he’d bother.

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