Rousing, ‘visual’ performance at CSO

By Phyllis Dreazen | 12/13/2013, 11:22 a.m.
Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the CSO Thursday night at Symphony Center in a creative program, one that gave the ...
Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the CSO Thursday night at Symphony Center in a creative program, one that gave the brass section a particularly good workout. Chief conductor or the Norwegian Radio Orchestra ad music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Harth-Bedoya’s recording with Yo-Yo Ma and the CSO, Sounds of Silk Road Chicago, was nominated for two Grammys.

He opened with Antonin Dvorak’s rousing, but rarely heard Husitska Overture. Theodore Thomas closed the first concert ever given by the Chicago Symphony with it in 1891. A couple of years earlier it had been used in the concert to reopen Prague’s National Theatre after it had been destroyed by fire. Fittingly, perhaps, the overture was named for John Huss (Jan Hus), a religious reformer who had been burned at the stake (1415). Thirteen minutes long with sing-able tunes, rousing rhythms and lots of brass, it is a perfect concert opener.

Next came the first CSO performance of Carlos Chavez’s Piano Concerto. Local favorite Jorge Federica Osorio was soloist. Chavez was Mexico’s musical ambassador in the middle years of the last century. His works were comparable to those of visual artists like Diego Rivera: primitive, pulsing rhythms, traditional tunes, consciously anti-European. The piano concerto (1940) opens with a largo, has a lento slow movement and is said to quote popular melodies. For the rest, it is 36 minutes of continuous ADHD energy, with few places to breathe; or, like a buffet plate filled with everything on the table indiscriminately together. Mr. Osorio, playing from a score, gave it his all. He was technically adroit and mined those lyrical nuggets found in the generally bombastic work. The audience responded enthusiastically.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, much better known in Maurice Ravel’s orchestration than the original piano version, ended the concert. In addition to the usual large orchestra, Ravel uses alto saxophone (The Old Castle) and tenor tuba (in Bydlo; it is smaller than a regular tuba and sounds somewhere between it and a trombone). The pictures that inspired Mussorgsky came from an exhibition to honor painter Victor Hartmann, who died at 39. The piano version is challenging and great fun to play, but the work owes its enduring popularity to Ravel’s genius with sound. From Christopher Martin’s iconic opening trumpet solo to Cynthia Yeh’s bell tolls at the end, it was an aural feast. Pictures so perfectly showcase the CSO’s brilliance, if there were such a thing as musical time-travel, it might have been written with the orchestra in mind. Mr. Harth-Bedoya conducted without score and showed a deeply felt, comprehensive and almost painterly vision of the whole. Though a tendency to over-conduct, detracted rather than enhanced the music, the audience was ecstatic.

It has been noted that the two most successful symphony orchestras in the country are run by women named Deborah: Rutter (CSO) and Borda (LaPhil). The other day it was announced that our Deborah will take over the Kennedy Center starting with the 2014 season. She will be missed.

The program will be repeated this afternoon and Sunday and Tuesday nights.