Chicago Tribune

December 20, 2013

CSO bids farewell to 2013 with sturdy showing under Eschenbach

John von Rhein

Review of Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach - Chicago Tribune 

CSO bids farewell to 2013 with sturdy showing under Eschenbach 

December 20, 2013
by John von Rhein 

The Christmas wreaths and garlands adorning the Armour Stage at Orchestra Hall may put audience members in a festive mood, but the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's final subscription program of 2013 conveys a serious intent unrelated to the musical sweetmeats served up by the season.

Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony Orchestra music director who will be a close working colleague of Deborah Rutter's in September 2014 when the CSO Association president leaves Chicago to become president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., was making his first downtown CSO appearance since 2001. It was good to have him back downtown in repertory that played to strengths he wasn't always able to display in his former capacity as Ravinia music director.

The late Fritz Reiner, whose 125th birthday anniversary coincided with Thursday night's concert, would no doubt have approved the precision and discipline the players brought to the Austro-German bookends of the program, Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, a few untidy moments aside in the latter work.

But the brief but absorbing centerpiece, Bernard Rands' 1993 "…where the murmurs die…," also spoke to Eschenbach's ability to get to the heart of the matter. The performance was offered in honor of the distinguished, British-born, Chicago-resident composer's 80th birthday, which will arrive in March.

The 10-minute Rands opus is part of a series of six pieces derived from lines in an early Samuel Beckett poem; such work had been commissioned by the CSO for Pierre Boulez's 70th birthday. The music takes its organic unity from a dotted rhythmic cell that recurs throughout, fanning out through subtly hued orchestration, its outline always clear despite the many transformations it undergoes.

You hear echoes of Debussy's "Jeux" in the delicate Impressionistic haze that surrounds this elegantly crafted piece, the refined solo writing for flutes and trumpets in particular. Listening to it is like looking at the waters of a pond that's still on the surface but teeming with life underneath. The CSO players drew its subtleties into a resonant whole and joined in the applause that greeted the composer at the end. Rands looked pleased and he had every reason to be.

Eschenbach had the orchestra playing with comparable commitment for both the Beethoven and Bruckner works. The solemn, massive chords that opened "Egmont" set forth the tensions that were resolved in the blazing Beethovenian drama the conductor whipped up later on.

The CSO has had a proprietary interest in Bruckner's unfinished Symphony No. 9 since 1904 when it gave the U.S. premiere, albeit in an inauthentic, severely abridged version perpetrated by a Brucker student. Previous interpretations here have tended to espouse spiritual contemplation (Carlo Maria Giulini), heroic dynamism (Georg Solti), or various combinations thereof (Daniel Barenboim and, recently, Bernard Haitink).

Eschenbach also traveled a middle course, maintaining firm control of the overarching symphonic structure while attending closely to instrumental detail and allowing the music to breathe warmly and flexibly. His handling of transitions, always crucial to the success of any Bruckner performance, was sensitive. You heard toughness and integrity in the orchestra's playing but you also heard heart-ease and tenderness.

His opening movement moved unerringly from the hushed solemnity of the mysterious introductory pages through a series of nicely judged climaxes and harmonic adventures. Vast vistas were evoked, both outward and interior.

This music has long been a serious party-piece for the mighty CSO brass – the eight horns in particular – and it's always a thrill to hear them apply their molten-gold sonority to Bruckner. The audience included many out-of-towners who were attending the annual Midwest International Band and Orchestra Conference here, and they must have been especially awestruck. 

Conductor and orchestra bore down hard on the driving and sinister Scherzo, giving us a terrifying glimpse into the abyss. The relaxed trio section offered some respite, with its sighing strings and chirruping flute, but the respite was short-lived.

I liked the deep-piled string sound, finely balanced woodwinds and firm brass foundation (including four Wagner tubas) Eschenbach brought to the great Adagio that is Bruckner's farewell to earthly things. He knows where the harmonic pressure-points lie and went for them. Bruckner's long climb to the big, agonized climax was followed by a wondrous clearing-away of all but pure spiritual contemplation. Too bad some audience members preferred coughing to contemplation.

Early January will take the CSO and Riccardo Muti on six-concert tour of the Canary Islands, Germany and Luxembourg. Their next series of subscription concerts won't begin until Jan. 30.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $31-$217; 312-294-3000,

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