Sub conductor Popelka makes an unconvincing CSO debut

Sat Mar 02, 2024 at 7:13 am

By Tim Sawyier

Petr Popelka conducted the CSO in music of Schubert, Beethoven and Mendelssohn on Friday. Photo: Khalil Baabak

Herbert Blomstedt was originally slated to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in symphonies of Schubert and Beethoven this week. The 96-year-old conductor suffered a fall early last month, however, which forced him to withdraw from the performances, and opened the door for Petr Popelka to make his CSO debut as Blomstedt’s replacement.

The Czech conductor inherited the original program of Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a lightish lineup no doubt chosen partly in consideration of a nonagenarian’s understandable limitations of stamina. This nonetheless added to the overall conservative impression coming from Orchestra Hall this week, following as it did on the heels of the CSO’s 2024-25 season announcement, which laid out an unadventurous next year for the orchestra.

Popelka will become chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra next season, so perhaps it is fitting that his debut was devoted to Viennese masters. Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 in C Major is often referred to as the “Little C-Major Symphony” to distinguish it from the composer’s titanic No. 9 in the same key. Composed when Schubert was around 20, the score brims with youthful experimentation, though this feeling was lacking in Popelka’s overly literal reading Friday afternoon.

The opening movement begins with a spacious introductory Adagio that gives way to a spirited Allegro where the mirthful influence of Rossini—a sensation in Vienna at the time—is particularly apparent. While the CSO winds injected playful solo turns throughout, there is more wit and personality to be found in this music that Popelka captured. His generalized approach continued in the Andante, which would have benefited from greater sweep and contrast than he was able to draw from the orchestra.

The Scherzo fared best, with solid impact and vitality in the outer sections framing a slower, rustic dance by way of a trio. The ingenious closing Allegro moderato is a challenge to pull off, its unassuming, strolling theme alternating with more propulsive sections. Popelka struggled to weave these into a coherent closing statement Friday, and one was not surprised to learn afterwards it was his first time conducting the work.

Beethoven’s inescapable Symphony No. 7 rounded out the Viennese feast. While the CSO playing such indelible music will always be a treat to some extent, Friday’s performance after intermission again failed to rise above the routine.

Popelka charted the harmonic pivots of the regal Poco sostenuto ably enough, highlighted with lyrical turns from principal oboe William Welter, though the ecstatic Vivace remained earthbound. Popelka has a particularly demonstrative style, frequently highlighting details at the expense of the larger harmonic motion. He also has a habit, when conducting the tutti strings, of doubling over toward the front desks, inevitably disconnecting him from the sections at large. 

Things recovered in the Allegretto, which Popelka imbued with the inevitability and gravitas it calls for. While it is hard to compromise the infectious energy of the symphony’s final two movements, these still felt more or less perfunctory. The Presto crackled at moments, but important details like the ppp iteration of its primary material blew by. The military Allegro con brio reliably brings down the house, but on Friday one heard little beyond a great orchestra going through the motions.

There were also a number of technical lapses in the Beethoven—a horn blat going into the first movement’s development section, an early violin entrance in the Presto, among others. These things happen in live performance, but in the overall context contributed to the impression of a slow day at the office.

Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture, which opened the program and had been added by Popelka as some needed filler, actually made the strongest impression, if not exactly bringing variety. Popelka led a fluent, evocative reading to begin the afternoon, with oceanic surges alternating with calmer waters, before ebbing away in a misty, Turner-esque diminuendo.

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

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Sub conductor Popelka makes an unconvincing CSO debut”

  1. Posted Mar 02, 2024 at 10:17 pm by Louis Lee

    What good does it do for starting conductors like Popelka to accept a job for which they are obviously unready? The Saturday performance was everything opposite what you would get from the master whom he replaced. Blomstedt’s conducting is minimalist, wise, subtle, and Popelka’s was anything but.

    Popelka did not know how to breathe; his relentless drive struck one as naive. And to play on Sergiu Celibidache’s claim that the Vienna Philharmonic were an orchestra who could play only mezzo forte… Popelka made the CSO an orchestra who could play nothing but fortissimmo.

  2. Posted Mar 03, 2024 at 3:20 pm by Albert Ettinger

    I don’t agree. I thought the Beethoven 7 was great and so did the audience Friday. Yes, the pace was fast but I would not say it was too loud or too fast for Beethoven 7. If you want an afternoon nap, find different music.

  3. Posted Mar 05, 2024 at 11:40 pm by James Caristi

    What we have here is a wonderful example of how a performance can be overwhelmingly moving to “ordinary” people, but uninspiring to esteemed critics. I was privileged to attend the open rehearsal where Popelka went through the Beethoven with the orchestra starting at the last movement and working his way back. I saw and heard what he wanted to do, mostly with the strings, to inject even more excitement into the performance.

    When I heard the actual concert on Saturday night, I was astonished at the breakneck pace, and that he completely succeeded in what he tried to do. It felt to me like watching a roadster being expertly driven down a twisting mountain road at a speed that seems impossible to maintain. It all worked. And the proof was in the remarkable way the standing ovation occurred: everyone around me leaped to their feet the moment the piece ended.

  4. Posted Mar 08, 2024 at 8:20 pm by Argyle1

    I hate to break the news to some of the commenters above, but there are many, many American conductors who could have led the musicians of the CSO through a razzle-dazzle reading of the Beethoven Symphony No.7 — a work those musicians could easily play themselves — in order to get the now-ubiquitous, All-American Automatic Standing Ovation. And then, the thought that this guy got his training wheels on Schubert 6 — one of the great old Solti specialties — on the time of this ensemble….

    This is the ultimate example of this once-mighty Orchestra and its bandmaster-emeritus-for-life effectively barring the door to American artists.

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