Enough tremors were unleashed by a huge battery of percussion instruments at Thursday night's Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert that management may wish to have the auditorium walls checked for cracks once the dust from the weekend concerts has settled.
An exaggeration, of course, but this latest installment of the CSO's "Rivers" festival exploded with a feast of Latin American percussion such as Symphony Center hasn't heard in quite some time. The entire program was exhilarating and fun, and it gave the audience music it hasn't heard in a long while, if ever. Too bad there were so few folks in the house to enjoy it.
Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto's program was dominated by 20th century Latin-American scores that were inspired by pre-Columbian lore and landscapes: his countryman Silvestre Revueltas' "La Noche de los Mayas" ("The Night of the Mayas") and the suite from the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera's ballet "Panambi."
For the Revueltas work, the guest maestro brought in oodles of exotic percussion from his personal collection of modern-made, pre-Hispanic instruments, along with several from the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, which he directs in addition to serving as music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic in New Orleans.
All these were brought into play in the final section, "Night of Enchantment," of Revueltas' picturesque suite, music drawn from the soundtrack he composed for a 1939 Mexican film.
This dark ritual had no fewer than 14 percussionists improvising on Indian and log drums, maracas, conch shell, guiro (scraper), sonajas (rattles) and teponaztle (slit-drum), in addition to more standard instruments. By the time the full orchestra joined in the pounding rhythmic din, the house was resounding to vibes at once archaic and modern: "The Rite of Spring" transplanted from pagan Russia to the Yucatan jungle.
Prieto and the orchestra entered fully into the supercharged energy of the music, making as much of its tender lyricism as they did of its convulsive rhythms and clashing tonalities.
A comparatively modest number of percussionists – nine – were enlisted for the "Panambi" Suite, which the CSO was playing for the first time. The 1935-37 ballet is based on a Guarani Indian legend about love and magic in the Rio Parana region of northern Argentina. The four dances Ginastera drew from his Opus One are by turns atmospheric and volatile, including a passage for dueling timpani punctuated by insistent brass. Its coiled dance rhythms foreshadow those of the composer's "Estancia" ballet.
Prieto's reading was effective enough to make one regret there wasn't enough room on the program to play more than 12 minutes of music from the complete score.
For a rare encore at a CSO subscription concert, the conductor turned from music evocative of Central and South American waterways to "river" music relating to his North American orchestral base – the jaunty "Mardi Gras" section from Ferde Grofe's "Mississippi Suite."
You might imagine Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 5 – the so-called "Egyptian" Concerto – would be odd man out in this musical company. Wrong: The French composer's final piano concerto is an aural travelogue filled with evocations of the Nile, the Far East and other far-flung locations whose waters left a deep impression on him.
Why so many pianists pass over the "Egyptian" Concerto in favor of his second or fourth keyboard concertos is a mystery, since it's a charming and beautifully made virtuoso vehicle, full of ebullient tunes and sparkling display material, unmistakably French. The work, which the CSO hasn't touched in nearly 25 years, takes its nickname from the exotic middle movement, a "Nubian love song" that uses Arabic musical modes and scales to represent croaking frogs and chirping crickets on the Nile riverbanks.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet is among the score's most convincing current champions, and the American-based French pianist gave it a performance as spiffy as his designer attire. Such was the pinpoint clarity with which he dispatched the brilliant solo part that you always heard the piano in high relief against Prieto's sympathetic accompaniment. His playing lacked nothing in color, verve or adrenalin, particularly in the breakneck finale. He emerged from the cascades of galloping octaves not only unscathed but triumphant.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $24-$212; 312-294-3000, cso.org.
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