During the same season in which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is making a big bicentenary splash on behalf of Richard Wagner, attention must be paid a couple of other composer anniversaries. Thursday night's subscription program, ably conducted by Charles Dutoit, reminded the audience of two worthy British honorees from the 20th century, Benjamin Britten and William Walton.
The music world is readying a 21-gun salute to the Britten centenary next year. Observances on this side of the pond are likely to be spotty, however. Apart from "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," which opened this first program of Dutoit's two-week podium engagement, the CSO has announced nothing else by the composer all season.
"The Young Person's Guide" is an ingenious set of variations on a theme by Henry Purcell, capped off by a brilliant fugue. Britten composed it for an educational film meant to introduce schoolchildren to the instruments of the symphony orchestra. But, like so many works ostensibly geared for kids, it's so sophisticated that their elders are apt to enjoy it even more.
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Britten could just as well have had the Chicago Symphony in mind when he wrote the piece – such was the swagger each instrumental family brought to its particular variation. My own favorite was the double basses, whom Britten turns into a bunch of hippos trying to dance in toe shoes. Dutoit launched the fugue at a really spirited clip, but piccolo whiz Jennifer Gunn was right on top of it, and so were her colleagues when they had their moments in the sun.
Walton, who died 30 years ago in March, wrote his 1939 Violin Concerto for Jascha Heifetz, and that great violinist's long shadow has fallen over every fiddler who has ventured this virtuoso showpiece ever since. Only a scattered few have done so on the CSO subscription series, two of them concertmasters: John Weicher in 1952 and, most recently, Sidney Harth in 1964.
This weekend, it's Gil Shaham's turn. The Illinois-born, Israel-bred violinist could give the inimitable Jascha a close race in the razzle-dazzle department. Walton's concerto is the British equivalent of Samuel Barber's equally romantic Violin Concerto, composed during the same period. The very qualities that make Shaham so eloquent an exponent of the Barber served him exceptionallywell in the Walton. The suavity with which he spun the achingly beautiful lyricism, the bite he brought to the sharply syncopated rhythms, the swashbuckling elan he injected into the finale – all were the real deal.
A further plus was the gorgeous tone Shaham drew from his instrument, the 1699 "Countess Polignac" Stradivarius, of which he has been the proud owner for more than 20 years. With razor-sharp support from Dutoit and the orchestra, this was a distinguished entry in the violinist's ongoing survey of major violin concertos from the 1930s. He was loudly applauded by the crowd and got a paternal bear-hug from the guest conductor.
Dutoit could have made a clean sweep of it had he chosen to tack a British symphony onto the end of the program. Instead, he (or, more likely, the CSO management) bowed to the box office by concluding with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which the orchestra had played under Jaap van Zweden only six months earlier. I bow to no one in my love of Beethoven, but this is lazy programming.
While Dutoit added nothing exceptional to the Chicago Symphony's long and distinguished Beethoven performance tradition, neither did he take anything away from it. The relentless accumulation of tension others have brought to the Seventh wasn't quite so relentless here. Still, resolute drive was there, along with clear textures, dancing rhythms and a triumphant sweep to the finish line. Dutoit followed Daniel Barenboim's example by eliminating pauses between movements, which meant that the music charged ahead in an unbroken, 35-minute span. The vigor and spontaneity of the playing were hard to resist.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $28-$243; 312-294-3000, cso.org.