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November 23, 2015

If it ain't Baroque, fix it

For Friday night’s concert, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) pulled off a fantastic program of Baroque and Classical music. I arrived at Symphony Center full of anticipation: skilled soloists, interpretations respectful of stylistic conventions of the composer’s time, and a dynamic, well-balanced sound have defined my previous experiences with the CSO. Friday’s program of time-honored masterworks by Mozart, Telemann, Tartini, and Bach under Pinchas Zukerman was, for the most part, no exception.

Mozart’s well-known overture to The Magic Flute, first on the program, immediately showcased the stylistic capability, balance, and coordination of the orchestra. The string and woodwind sections showed superb articulation, and the brass section delivered a distinctly Classical, rounded forte sound.

Particularly well-executed was the transition from the iconic opening chords to the fast section containing the theme. To me, these chords are rather like those at the beginning of the Largo in Dvorak’s New World Symphony: they signal that something special is about to happen, and the rest of the rendition was special indeed. Some say this piece is overplayed but this rendition served as a reminder of why it is so often performed.

Exchanging his baton for a viola, Zukerman led Telemann’s four-movement Viola Concerto in G major in a way that can only be described as quintessentially Baroque. By design, the accompaniment is a smaller group of strings and continuo, creating an intimate setting. While such settings can sometimes lead to imbalances between the string parts, Zukerman’s accompaniment was a cohesive, sensitive force. It was also satisfying to hear that, in keeping with the Baroque style, the orchestra performed with an even, metronomic tempo and within a varied but narrower dynamic range.

An impromptu but informative story-time with Zukerman followed to allow the concertmaster a minute to replace a broken string before the next piece: Giuseppe Tartini’s Pastorale, orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi. In particular, the audience learned about the nontraditional tuning and fingering required for the Tartini—the soloist must tune his bottom two strings up one semitone to allow for easier execution of chords in the key of A. 

The Tartini was a light, spirited piece sounding rather like Vivaldi. Zukerman, however, gave unequal treatment to certain passages in the third-movement Largo, obscuring his interpretive intent. As a whole, though, the solo part was played dulcetly and served as a reminder that expressive, emotive playing can occur within the strict structure of Baroque music.

Next came a rendition of J. S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, played by Zukerman and CSO associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong. The first movement is exciting precisely because of its insistent quality, the two violins trading identical fragments of the theme like a well-planned game of catch. The Largo as played by the CSO struck me as much too fast, too legato in the accompaniment, and disproportionately loud in the bass section; preserving articulation in the accompaniment and not rushing this movement is essential for the expression of its lyrical and moving nature. The final movement, however, was played in perfect Baroque style with superb coordination between the two soloists.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 proved an exciting finale, skillfully embodying the mood and style of Mozart’s later works. The work was composed in a few short weeks during the summer of 1788 along with Symphonies No. 40 and 41. I have heard recordings of this symphony that rush the first movement’s beautiful opening chords, recordings with little to no vibrato in the upper strings, and other faults that can take away from the complexity and beauty of the work. It is no surprise, though, that the CSO under Zukerman’s baton again showed mastery of the Classical style. Nothing was missing from this memorable rendition.

In recent years, the CSO has programmed plenty of Romantic-era music—lots of Mahler, lots of Tchaikovsky, lots of Rachmaninov. While those composers’ masterworks deserve to be performed, it is gratifying to be reminded of the genius of earlier composers.

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