Review: Uncommon compositions and standout soloists shine at the CSO

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By Lexi Vollero

Sight and sound meet at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Last Saturday’s performance featured a diverse repertoire of often-overlooked works, including pieces by the likes of Brahms, Schumann, and Saint-Saëns.  Conductor Emmanuel Krivine’s grandiose gestures complimented the ensemble’s synchronicity as they seamlessly articulated a unified sound and moved as perfectly-timed mechanisms in a great machine so that even the slightest gesture out of place would have appeared an eyesore.

The audience immediately snapped to attention when Krivine cued the two jarring strikes that open Brahms’ Tragic Overture, followed by the melancholy melody that builds to an intense crescendo. The piece’s natural tension was created by the shifts between major and minor keys and enhanced by the ensemble’s remarkable attention to dynamics. The interplay between wind and string instruments and the moments in which they merged created a turbulent drama that was metered by metronomic tympani.

Then drama took visual form in world-renowned violinist Isabelle Faust, who took the stage regally dressed in marigold and wine with sleeves trailing from her elbows like delicate dancing capes that swirled while she played. Like her physical movements, Faust’s performance of Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D Minor was powerful and impassioned yet expertly controlled.

Faust effortlessly captured a range of emotions, from a syrupy dialogue with a solo cello in the second movement to numerous lively passages and ornate runs in the third. Apparently the audience was also mesmerized, because when she landed a descending scale into the end of a phrase and grandly pulled her bow while turning toward the audience, she almost prompted the audience to applaud.

Given my limited impression of an organ’s harsh capabilities from Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” (better known as the “Dracula Theme”), I was fully prepared for Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 “Organ” to be a complete departure from the lions and wild asses in his better-known “Carnival of the Animals.”

So, imagine my surprise when solo organist Paul Jacobs articulated the piece’s first chord: a soft hum that rounded out the symphony’s sound while leaving room for the strings to soar. With laser focus, Jacobs deftly worked the foot pedals and three rows of keys in impressive fashion, pouring over and completely overtaking the instrument without overpowering the symphony. The ending sections of the work conveyed Saint-Saëns’ characteristic playful sensibilities through alternating phrases between the organ and a two-person piano, which were tossed back and forth between either side of the stage.

The CSO made it a point to demonstrate their appreciation and admiration for their soloists by allowing them to perform a short passage of their choice after various rounds of applause and standing ovations. Unaccompanied by the symphony, every set of eyes in the concert hall was trained on the soloists. Their hands operated the instruments, but the audience was captivated by the extension of artistic expressions throughout their whole bodies– showcasing the whimsy of live performance.

Steven Norwalk