The recent triumphs of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Russia and Italy were all, I'm sure, well earned. But the roaring reception that greeted the CSO musicians Saturday night at the first subscription concert since their latest overseas tour reminded one that any accolades an orchestra may garner around the world begin with its achievements back home.
Riccardo Muti wasn't in charge of these weekend concerts — he's in Vienna to lead the Vienna Philharmonic in a program commemorating the 200th anniversary of the orchestra's venerable hall, the Musikverein, of whose "Society of Music Friends" he is an honorary member, right alongside Brahms and Verdi.
But cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the orchestra's creative consultant, was on hand Saturday to pack Orchestra Hall in the music director's stead. And the orchestra members, minus a few key principals and not quite back to their peak playing level, at least sounded as if they were glad to be back on familiar turf after surviving the variable acoustics of foreign concert halls.
Ma began his spring CSO residency a week ago with a crossover recital and he is completing it Thursday and Friday nights with performances of Haydn's D major Cello Concerto, under the direction of Dutch conductor Ton Koopman. On Saturday, he delivered a rapt and impassioned account of Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor in partnership with his frequent collaborator, Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto.
Ma has, of course, played this most popular concerto in the cello repertory countless times, including several Chicago performances. The wonder is that the music never feels stale under his fingers, because he is always finding fresh ways to make it speak to his listeners, as much through his sovereign instrumental command and searching insights as through the sparks he strikes off his orchestral colleagues.
What lifted his Dvorak out of the ordinary, above all, was how spontaneous and how generous it all felt. The cellist brought his usual tonal refinement as well as a degree of rhapsodic freedom that allowed the lyricism to unfold both tenderly and with a firm sense of direction. Ma's unusually wide dynamic range — from ethereal pianissimi to rich fortes — found an equally sensitive ally in Prieto, whose balancing of the orchestra was always true to the cellist's needs.
Ma's close listening to the orchestra, and it to him, turned the slow movement into an unusually rapt musical dialogue, its flood of melody deeply felt all around. Dale Clevenger sustained the big horn solo well, while the outer movements found the cellist at his vivacious and committed best.
A frenzied burst of applause greeted him at the end, prompting an encore — an eloquent rendition of the Sarabande from Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 3. Ma dedicated it to the memory of the eminent Chicago stringed instrument dealer Geoffrey Fushi, who died April 13.
Prieto — music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic and a host of orchestras in Mexico — began the concert with an observance of his own, that of Cinco de Mayo, the annual celebration of Mexican heritage and pride. He brought out the rhythmic snap and color of Jose Pablo Moncayo's "Huapango" in a fiesta of loud exuberance. There was a smudged horn entrance, but it was fun to hear trumpeter Chris Martin and trombonist Jay Friedman converse, mariachi-style.
Apart from idiosyncratic distortion, there's not a lot a conductor can do with the Beethoven symphonies that hasn't been done many times already. Even so, Prieto's bracing account of Beethoven's early Symphony No. 2 had much to recommend it: brisk but not driven pacing, clarity of texture, sharpness of accent and springiness of rhythm. It combined period-performance grit and lucidity and postmodern warmth, and in so doing conveyed many portents of the mature Beethoven style.
Prieto had the woodwind and brass choirs stand to receive their own separate ovations, a nice touch. He also did a lot of shaking of hands of individual players, prompting one of my colleagues to wonder whether he is running for office in this election year.
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