- Britten The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
- Walton Violin Concerto
- Beethoven Symphony No. 7
Dutoit Leads CSO in Varied and Gripping Program
November 8, 2012
Review by Samuel Wigutow
Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit brought his two-week engagement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra off to an auspicious start Thursday night with a highly compelling presentation of music by Britten, William Walton, and Beethoven. The conductor coaxed the very best out of this formidable ensemble, ensuring, with the help of a comparably impressive solo contribution from violinist Gil Shaham, that this would not be just another routine night at the symphony.
First on the program was Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell, Op. 34, composed in 1946. As the name suggests, like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf it was written as part of a program introducing children to the symphony orchestra; as heard here without the original spoken commentary, the piece served as a showcase for the color and virtuosity of the CSO. It begins with a theme taken from Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s Abdelazar, albeit presented by a rather incongruous full modern orchestra complete with xylophone and harp, which after its initial statement by the whole orchestra is presented by each section; a set of variations follows, each featuring a particular instrument or section. Britten wraps the piece up with a fugue on an original theme – a cheeky tune that could have been straight out of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony – which, perhaps a bit overwhelmingly here, and not without bombast, again goes through each section of the orchestra, with the brass concurrently playing the Purcell theme at the very end. It proved an effective and enjoyable vehicle for the precision and character of the CSO musicians – to a person – as demonstrated under Dutoit’s direction.
The Walton Violin Concerto that followed on the program is also a British work from circa 1940, but is probably much less of a known quantity to many than the Young Person’s Guide. Walton was known for composing Shakespeare film scores for Laurence Olivier, but this partially jazz-inspired piece in many ways could have been out of a film noir – particularly the restless first movement, which, true to its Andante tranquillo marking, lacks the fire one might expect of a first movement, yet in spite of the tranquillo is permeated by a vague yet insistent unease, with its ambiguous harmonic sense and the brass constantly adding dark colors to the texture. The intensity picks up in the somewhat episodic second movement, which is similar in mood but features a lot of violin fireworks (almost effortlessly dispatched by Shaham, who here as throughout the concerto delivered an admirable combination of intensity and polish) punctuated by frenzied orchestral outbursts. The Vivace finale is a little jauntier than what came before, and at one point the violin introduces a cantabile theme that almost seems to let some sunlight in through the clouds. Dutoit matched the soloist with an expressively-direct accompaniment that made a good case for this intriguing work.
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony had the second half of the program to itself, and its performance was no disappointment, although the strength of Dutoit’s interpretation was not totally evident at first. The first movement proceeded at a moderate although hardly slow tempo, and to Dutoit’s credit the orchestra played with exceptional precision, intensity, and richness of tone, but in the ascending chromatic scales of the Poco sostenuto introduction and the infectious main theme of the Vivace proper, the music often felt overly controlled, lacking in spontaneity and joy, its strong rhythms more stiffly march-like than usual. Nonetheless, the sense pf sustained intensity was impressive, and some beautifully lilting phrases found their way in – particularly in the gradually crescendo-ing violins towards the end of the exposition and the subdued passage for alternating woodwind groups in the development.
Dutoit went straight into the allegretto without a break, as he would also do with the remaining movements – a surprisingly effective bit of interpretive license that contributed well to sense of constantly-building momentum in this symphony. The merits of Dutoit’s no-nonsense reading emerged still more clearly in this movement, which was propulsive rather than dance-like but never brusque or impatient. The rollicking scherzo did not lack for excitement, either; and the finale was as powerful and driving as one could ask for. The performance was a success by virtue not only of the orchestral playing, which was both virtuosic and expressive, but because Dutoit brought to it urgency and not just speed and sleekness (a not-uncommon pitfall for conductors in this piece) – the best renditions of the Seventh always sound, in some way or another, ready to burst at the seams.
With an interesting and enjoyable selection and such committed direction from the podium, I warmly recommend this program to anyone who appreciates (or wants to appreciate) a world-class orchestra giving its all. It was as engaging and rewarding an orchestral concert as I have ever attended.
At Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL, call 312-294-3000, www.cso.org, tickets $45 – $185, Nov. 10 at 8pm & Nov 11 at 3pm