For CSO guest maestro Macelaru, it's once more unto the Boulez breach

This has been a terrible winter as far as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's senior conductors are concerned, with both music director Riccardo Muti and, now, conductor emeritus Pierre Boulez, benched because of health issues.

Boulez's cancellation of his two scheduled subscription weeks this month at Symphony Center – the CSO management issued a vague announcement that the eminent French conductor and composer was dropping out "following the instructions of his doctors" – is worrisome given his advanced age (he will turn 88 later this month) and the fact that this marks the second year in a row he has bowed out of a CSO residency. Although Boulez is scheduled to return for another two-week engagement next season, one is not optimistic.

To fill the breach for concerts this weekend and Tuesday night, management again deputized Cristian Macelaru, the same conductor who took over one of the weeks Boulez missed last season. The Romanian-born associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a thoroughly capable musician who knows his way around much of the 20th century repertory that is Boulez's specialty. Macelaru did, however, replace the scheduled "Chronochromie" of Olivier Messiaen with something safer and less esoteric, Bela Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra.

A hall with noticeably more empty seats than usual heard an attractive program that turned on a French-Hungarian axis.

The concert's bookends, Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and Stravinsky's "The Song of the Nightingale," share a predilection for delicate exoticism and highly refined orchestral color. Both scores achieved their early fame by virtue of Sergei Diaghilev's incorporating them into the repertory of his famed dance company, the Ballets Russes.

It was good to see and hear principal clarinet Stephen Williamson back for the first time since the CSO announced he was taking a leave next season to play principal clarinet with the New York Philharmonic. His mellow tone and long-breathed phrasing in the Debussy tone poem complemented the sinuous lines of Mathieu Dufour's solo flute and Eugene Izotov's oboe. Macelaru's languid pacing allowed more instrumental detail to emerge than is sometimes the case.

Then came the Bartokian double whammy of the Hungarian master's Piano Concerto No. 2 and the divertimento.

With its angular melodies, stark linear motion and icy detachment, the concerto is as close as Bartok came to embracing Stravinsky's neo-classical aesthetic. The work had its U.S. premiere right here in Chicago, in 1939, with Bartok's student, the aptly-named Storm Bull, as soloist with music director Frederick Stock and the CSO. Bartok himself played the concerto two years later at these concerts.

It's hard to imagine a more incisive or exhilarating a performance than the one Yefim Bronfman delivered on Thursday. The dauntless "Fima," as he's called, dispatched the furious torrents of notes with a driving dynamism that never turned brittle or percussive. Indeed, he gave the impression of having power to spare as his firm tone sliced through the orchestra, the Russian-born pianist pulling a full, commanding sound from the depths of the Steinway.

The hushed, otherworldly dialogue of the middle movement was particularly well sustained, leading into a whirling scherzo section where the orchestra took charge over rapid figuration from the pianist. Macelaru was no slouch either when it came to projecting the irregular rhythms in high relief, though he might have reined in the trumpets a bit more in the first movement.

Bronfman drew a hero's welcome from the audience once the dust had cleared. His solo encore, Chopin's Etude in F Major, Opus 10, brought a lightening of touch but no easing up of tempo.

With its rapid interplay between a smaller, concertino group of players and the rest of the string orchestra, the divertimento represents a more accessible, folkish side of Bartok. Macelaru kept the apparatus moving along steadily, with springy rhythms and knife-edged attacks. The CSO strings in general, concertmaster Robert Chen in particular, responded alertly, summoning the varying degrees of tonal intensity he asked for.

Stravinsky extracted the music for his 1916 symphonic poem "The Song of the Nightingale" from the second and third acts of his chamber opera, "The Nightingale," based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. It would have been nice to hear Boulez work his clarifying magic on the luxuriant orchestration, but Macelaru's finely characterized reading left little to be desired. One came away with a renewed appreciation of the coloristic subtleties Stravinsky packed into his evocative score. The woodwinds came through splendidly, but so did the celesta, piano and the rest of the percussion players. Principal trumpet Christopher Martin intoned the "bluesy" fisherman's song beautifully.

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

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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