Fray Plays Mozart at the CSO

Program:cso color

Mason Bates: Liquid Interface

Mozart: Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466

Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123

At Orchestra Hall, Chicago

 Mozart, Bartok at the CSO

 The CSO’s rather dispiriting concert Friday evening got off to an inauspicious start with a new composition by composer-in-residence Mason Bates entitled Liquid Interface.  Purportedly meant to evoke water in its various states, it was every bit as silly as its name might suggest, complete with hip-hop rhythms and generally overdone percussion, electronic sampling of ocean sounds, and so forth, without much melodic or structural interest.  (To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, I think, if you like this sort of thing then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.)  I did enjoy the slow movement the most, much of which evoked a charming jazz sensibility; on the whole, however, this piece sounds less like a representation of the water than the soundtrack to an educational film about the ocean for school-children.  What’s more, with a running time exceeding 20 minutes, it took itself far too seriously.  In the face of this, I have little to add concerning the orchestra’s performance under Jaap van Zweden other than that it seemed polished enough to present the work at face value. 

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David Fray

 I was highly disappointed that at seemingly the last minute, pianist David Fray chose to substitute for Mozart’s glorious Piano Concerto No. 25 in C the relatively overplayed Concerto No. 20 in D minor.  While, like all of Mozart’s late piano concertos, this work is on a very high plane, it arguably lacks some of the scintillating magic of the others; at times it even begins to sound like Mozart is writing in rote-tragic mode.  In fairness to Mozart, this evening’s performance did the work few favors.  After an expressively wooden orchestral introduction, Fray entered with some lovely lyrical playing, but lacked fire in dramatic passages.  The slow movement was nicely flowing but lacking in character and ultimately made little impact.  Overall, in spite of some nice moments here and there, the interpretation failed to bring out much of either drama or elegance. 

 The orchestral accompaniment in particular often wanted not only for expression, but even tone and volume: dry and dispassionate all around.  This is indicative of the general variability (to put it kindly) of the musicianship of the CSO’s strings in particular – here also the winds – who can be quite virtuosic on occasion, but often produce far too meager a sound, especially in classical-era repertoire, and lack warmth and flexibility.  And as with his interpretation of Beethoven’s 7th with the CSO last spring, van Zweden here struck me as a serious, alert conductor who, without dragging the music, fails to galvanize the orchestra or convey a convincing expressive sensibility.

 The orchestra was clearly more at home in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.  This, Bartok’s most oft-played work, is proverbially regarded as one of the few modernist orchestral pieces worthy to enter the canon; and while it does have the advantage of being written in coherent musical lines (not something to take for granted in this era), and has its share of exciting or colorful passages, anyone who chooses to listen carefully to the work itself as opposed to its reputation will find that it is driven by an uninspired, one-dimensional melodic sensibility, with a tendency toward unsubtle repetition.  It is telling that some of the finest melodic material comes in the fourth-movement satire of Shostakovich, reminding us that for all his faults, Shostakovich was the finer composer by far.

 Van Zweden conducted with ample drama, but in some ways this performance said more to me about the CSO as an ensemble than any other.  Playing this brash, superficially edgy music, the CSO sounded to my ears almost as though they were fulfilling their Aristotelian telos or end; as though they were performing their highest existential function in performing it.  So harmonious was the union of spirit of the performers and the music they were playing that I often felt drawn against my judgment and taste to believe that I was witnessing a great artistic synthesis.   But one can get much the same effect from hearing the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven or Brahms under a great conductor – take from that what you will about the CSO.

 Not recommended.

 Samuel Wigutow

 Additional Dates for This Performance:

8:00 PM, Saturday, June 1, 2013

7:30 PM, Tuesday, June 4, 2013