CSO's first foray to western suburbs a success despite outdoor sound system

Now that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is about to renew an annual summer relationship with North Shore audiences that goes back nearly 80 years, and now that the CSO has established a continuing presence on Chicago's South Side, it sees only natural that the institution should want to extend its reach to new audiences and potential patrons in the western suburbs as well.

So it was that the orchestra earlier this year entered into a partnership with The Morton Arboretum to present its first series of concerts at the spectacularly beautiful, 1,700-acre woodland preserve in Lisle. The CSO last week gave five performances there, three on a semi-enclosed, portable outdoor stage. A program of John Williams film music kicked off the residency on Thursday night, followed by storytelling concerts for children on Saturday morning, an all-Tchaikovsky program Saturday evening and a family concert to close the series on Sunday afternoon.

Despite overcast skies and chilly temperatures at some events, the maiden voyage had to be deemed a popular success: Crowds totaling approximately 11,000 turned out for the series, according to official estimate, including the 3,900 who parked lawn chairs and picnic hampers on the lawn for the Tchaikovsky concert I attended on Saturday.

There's no way of telling how many of those DuPage County residents were hearing Chicago's world-class orchestra for the first time, but the goodwill that redounded — and, it is hoped, will continue to redound — to the CSO from the western burbs should assure management it made a canny investment.

Of course, performing and listening to classical music at such huge outdoor events always involve compromises of various sorts.

On Saturday night, cold winds sent the giant banners and draperies at the stage sides billowing, along with the pages of guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto's scores, a nuisance he appeared to take in stride. Since The Morton Arboretum lies below a flight path to O'Hare, there was a steady undercurrent of aeronautical distraction throughout the evening.

A more serious drawback was the sound system, which, while it might be perfectly adequate for rock concerts, gave back a crackly sonic facsimile of the mighty CSO that rendered the orchestra fairly anonymous: This really could have been any good orchestra thumping away in the cold night air.

Climaxes were dry and congested, with grainy strings, tubby bass sonorities and spotlit woodwinds that leapt out at the listener. Sonic perspectives kept shifting, perhaps borne by the restless winds. Whenever Jennifer Koh, the evening's admirably engaged soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, was tearing through passages on her instrument's E string, she sounded as if she were playing a steel violin. Any subtleties of tone quality she and Prieto worked to achieve were sacrificed to the setting.

Actually the amplification took on a more pleasing, less canned aspect once I moved to the rear of the lawn to catch the concluding Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. While the famous horn calls that open the symphony sounded rather tinny, the performance as a whole went down surprisingly well: Prieto's full-blooded reading showed a firm grasp of the music's gathering power and heady Russian emotionalism. The crowd cheered the musicians gratefully.

Koh, as it turns out, grew up only two blocks from the arboretum and spent many happy hours exploring its trees, gardens and hiking trails in her youth. She played the Tchaikovsky concerto with conspicuous feeling and almost nonchalant virtuosity, racheting up the excitement quotient in the whirling, Russian-dance finale. Prieto and the orchestra contributed their share to the reading's success. Even so, all parties, and the music itself, would have been better served indoors.

A full-throttle account of Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien" opened the program.

jvonrhein@tribune.comTwitter @jvonrhein
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