IN PERFORMANCE

Now an honored guest rather than sub, Sakari Oramo returns to CSO podium

Sakari Oramo is another guest conductor originally brought in as a substitute for Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription concerts imperiled by accidents or illnesses suffered by Riccardo Muti. The Finnish maestro made so positive an impression at his hastily arranged debut here in February 2011 that management would have been remiss in not inviting him back through the front door. And that was precisely what happened Thursday night at Symphony Center.

A rising star in the podium world, particularly in Scandinavia and Great Britain, where he serves as chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and chief conductor designate of the BBC Symphony, Oramo did much to confirm what previous experience had suggested. His grip on the scores at hand was no less firm than his control of his orchestral forces, tempered by a flexibility and precision born of keen musical insight.

That much was clear from the gripping performance of Carl Nielsen's Fifth Symphony with which Oramo concluded the program.

Completed in 1922, the symphony represents the Danish composer's response to the devastation and chaos of war and his affirmation of the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. The music ebbs and flows with eruptive surges of energy followed by pages of uneasy release, all of which Oramo laid out with sweeping authority.

The first movement is marked by one of the composer's trademark touches: a fierce battle between an insistent snare drum and an orchestra it attempts to silence with its militaristic rat-a-tat. It took the full force of the CSO to overcome the thunderbolts percussionist Cynthia Yeh hurled at it. John Bruce Yeh's keening clarinet offered no easy consolation in the epilogue.

Oramo whipped up plenty of honest excitement in the two fugues of the second movement, whose unstoppable dynamism carried the music to a triumphal close. He had the ideal orchestral apparatus to achieve his interpretive objectives. As if to acknowledge that fact, he applauded the CSO players before taking his own bows. If there were more Nielsen advocates as committed as he, Nielsen's music would be smack in the center of the standard symphonic repertory.

Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 was written around the same time as the Nielsen symphony although its brilliance reflects very different objectives. The composer himself played the world premiere with the Chicago Symphony back in 1921, and since then countless pianists have pitted their skills against its glittery bravura in performances by the CSO. Yuja Wang is the latest virtuoso contender and she rode the warhorse to victory.

A YouTube sensation at 26, the Chinese pianist has flying fingers, a phenomenal technique and a flair for fashion. Her Chicago recitals of recent years left rather mixed impressions but her Prokofiev burned up the keyboard with a cool blue flame. That had been true of her CSO debut in 2007, when she tackled Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2, and it marked her exciting account of the Prokofiev Third on Thursday.

The studied flashiness noted on previous occasions was largely absent. How Wang's small hands could encompass the music's wide melodic leaps, crunching chords and driving passagework so accurately, at such breakneck tempos, was not easily explained. Her feeling for color and poetry came through in the gauzy delicacy she brought to the dreamy meditations that interrupt the propulsive dynamism of the outer movements. The audience leapt to its feet, applauding and cheering.

Oramo, whose tight accompaniment succeeded in reining in Wang's dervish streak just enough to maintain cohesion, opened with a first local hearing of Australian composer Brett Dean's "Amphitheatre" (2000).

This 11-minute "scene for orchestra" (whose title the program book misspelled as "Ampitheatre") is about inchoate timbres coalescing into turbulent climaxes laced with the hollow clatter of steel pans and odd brass resonances. If all you seek are furtive sound effects echoing as if from across vast distances, this is your kind of inoffensive post-modernism. Oramo and the orchestra did well by it. Would that the music itself were half as interesting as the composer's program note.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $24-$208; 312-294-3000, cso.org.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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