Jaap van Zweden's progression from pinch-hitter to honored guest to esteemed member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's extended family has been one of the most encouraging developments Chicago music has seen in years.
The superb Dutch conductor has much to offer the orchestra and its public, and the administration is rightly giving his talents full sway. A year from now, for example, he will spearhead the CSO's "Truth to Power" focus on Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and the role their music played in 20th century culture and politics.
Van Zweden returned to Symphony Center on Thursday night to begin his second series of subscription concerts of the season. Once again he secured results that spoke eloquently to the exceptionally close musical chemistry he enjoys with the CSO players. His program had as its centerpiece the first Chicago performance of resident composer Mason Bates' "Liquid Interface," presented as part of the orchestra's ongoing "Rivers" festival.
Written for and premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington in 2007 (three years before Bates' appointment to the CSO), "Liquid Interface" prefigures the global warming concerns he would explore in another switched-on fusion of orchestral sound and electronica, "Alternative Energy," a CSO commission Riccardo Muti and the CSO premiered here last season.
This time the operative metaphor is water as it moves through an increasingly hotter world, from glacier ice to currents evaporating in a haze of humidity. The orchestra illustrates this aqueous metamorphosis with pattering, post-minimalist grooves, sassy evocations of Dixieland swing and licks of Gershwinesque pop, interwoven with processed sounds summoned by Bates himself from his laptop.
The electronica ranges from actual sounds of calving Antarctic glaciers and creaking ships' masts to percussive beats and synthesized snaps, crackles, pops and trip-hop rhythms that fan out over the orchestra like monstrous ocean waves. The music goes down easily, rather too easily as far as I was concerned. ("Alternative Energy" does all of this better.) But it drew a tight, well organized performance from Thursday's performers and whoops of delight from the audience.
The program brought another first, the CSO debut of the elegant French pianist David Fray, playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466 (a change from the originally announced Mozart Concerto No. 25 in C major).
Fray and van Zweden are regular collaborators and share a Mozartean sensibility that respects classical style and proportions. The pianist's sound is very "French school," clear, refined and splendidly articulated, if not deep. His playing was always in the best of taste, and nothing was allowed to disturb the smooth finish of his pianism, even in the grand Edwin Fischer cadenza he chose for the finale.
At times one missed the deeper emotional involvement other pianists bring to this tragic masterpiece; as with Fray's Orchestra Hall recital debut in 2011, you felt he was holding back something. There was less of that in van Zweden's sensitive accompaniment, which paid heed to late 18th century manners, including the use of hard timpani sticks. Minor reservations aside, Fray's debut must be rated a success.
Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which concluded the concert, allowed the guest conductor and his merry band to cut loose on a symphonic staple this orchestra has practically owned since the Fritz Reiner years. Van Zweden knew exactly when the music wanted to press forward, when to give the Hungarian rhythms their needed snap, when intensity of sound had to be matched by intensity of feeling. A performance of stunning power and character was the result. (Don't miss the wonderfully sarcastic trombones in the Shostakovich parody of the "Interrupted Intermezzo.")
The color and brilliance of the full orchestra carried over into the solo playing of oboist Eugene Izotov, flutist Mathieu Dufour and guest principal clarinet Jonathan Gunn. The latter is married to CSO piccolo principal Jennifer Gunn and is acting principal clarinet of the Cincinnati Symphony. Clearly he's a fine musician to have around when the need arises.
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.
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @jvonrhein