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May 14, 2012

CSO shines with Ton Koopman and the mid-18th century

If--between the great Baroque masses, Bach and Handel oratori and the mature output of the triumviral Hadyn-Mozart-Beethoven-- the mid-18th century is a lull of first-order genius, it proved itself to be an extraordinarily pleasant lull at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Mozart & Hadyn” concert this past Saturday. The Dutch conductor Ton Koopman, also a keyboardist who studied under the late Gustav Leonhardt, led some 34 musicians. Koopman specializes in Baroque music, “Drawing the line,” he says, “at Mozart’s death”—1791. The program was a who’s-who of Galante music, beginning with Jean-Féry Rebel and P.A. Locatelli and concluding with early Haydn and very early Mozart.

Stravinsky reminds us that, “Conductors’ careers are made for the most part with ‘Romantic’ music. ‘Classic’ music eliminates the conductor; we do not remember him in it.” To some extent his observation holds, as one imagines Koopman had merely to give a downbeat and the tightly unified CSO could have carried it from there. That said, the conducting was never wan or hesitant; Koopman was in his element, and it showed.

Haydn’s “Symphony No. 6” (of 104, plus at least two others and three sinfonie concertanti) prominently features the flautist, bassoonist, principal cellist, and concertmaster, among others. Nicknamed “Le matin,” and opening with a six-bar sunrise, it was the first in a series of three for his new patron, Prince Esterházy, followed by “Le midi” and “Le soir” (“Morning,” “Noon,” and “Evening,” respectively). Haydn was to spend 30 years with the Hungarian prince, and the tailoring of the solos to particular instruments (and indeed, particular instrumentalists) demonstrates the close relationship he had with the court orchestra. Koopman led the orchestra in a smooth but colorful account and permitted the flautist several charming ornamentations.

Although Haydn wrote two cello concerti, the piece performed on Saturday only became “Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major” in 1961, after the discovery of his earlier work. Narek Hakhnazaryan, who studied under Rostropovich, played the piece—which is less showy, though more technically rigorous than its predecessor—with assured grace, after Thursday and Friday night performances by Yo-Yo Ma, perhaps the hardest cellist to follow since the Armenian’s teacher passed away in 2007. If Ma’s “romantic indulgences” (as the Tribune judged them) were an anachronism on Thursday and Friday, Hakhnazaryan’s performance Saturday was appropriately staid, and the audience thanked him with an ovation that he took with a single, entirely pizzicato encore.

After intermission, Koopman directed two obscure but forward-looking short pieces from the 1730s by Pietro Locatelli and Jean-Féry Rebel. Locatelli is perhaps best known as a violin virtuoso and Italian émigré to Holland, where he stopped performing publicly and became active in musical publishing. His Introduttione teatrale has been justifiably neglected, and indeed this is the first time the Symphony has played it, though it was executed, one assumes, as well as it could have been. “Chaos,” the opening movement from Rebel’s choreographed symphony The Elements, a multi-movement, orchestral genre to be danced in full costume, begins with an introduction of dissonance extraordinary for the time, a simultaneous sounding of every note in the minor scale for about a half-minute. Although perhaps not as exciting a century after Arnold Schoenberg’s disturbing Pierrot Lunaire as it was to the mid-18th century, the orchestra and audience were captivated by this historical oddity, among Rebel’s last pieces, written when the composer was in his 70s.

The evening had a precocious finish—Mozart’s “Symphony No. 20,” written at just 16. The piece, rather like the Haydn symphony, was consummately rehearsed and unfolded in a deliberate, if buoyant, 20 minutes (the CSO’s estimate of 16 was slightly optimistic). It is formally quite daring—the first movement’s opening theme is not developed or recapitulated as is usual, though the piece does return to D major, and the theme reappears only, almost like a practical joke, in the last half-minute of the movement. The third-movement minuet and trio were written somewhat in response to Mozart’s recent time in Italy (indeed, he signed the autograph score “Amadeo Wolfgango Mozart”) in which minuets were too slow and too florid for his taste; that of the 20th symphony is of the simplest elegance. Mozart finishes the piece with a quick finale to which the CSO lent due brightness, if leaving some small measure of verve to be desired, a sentiment perhaps applicable to the tenor of the evening as a whole.

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