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November 3, 2016

Timid Soloist Undercuts Bold Conducting at CSO

As with most stereotypes, that of the self-obsessed violinist may or may not ring true—but when going to the symphony for a violin concerto I enter the hall with the expectation, even some excitement, that I will get to witness unabashed violin prowess. The virtuosity of this instrument’s repertoire requires a certain level of showmanship.

Sibelius’s lone violin concerto is no exception. Rife with luscious, sweeping melodies and technical landmines, the work requires the soloist to be expressive, practiced, and above all, confident. Unfortunately, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO)’s Sunday afternoon performance proved lackluster—Latvian-born soloist Baiba Skride offered a timid and inconsistent interpretation.

Skride’s more modest tempi stood in contrast to the breakneck speeds some soloists choose to shock and awe. While this was a welcome display of humility, the Adagio of the second movement dragged along almost unbearably so. The movement begins with a mournful melody in the lower register of the instrument that has the potential to be sensuous and heart-wrenching. Yet Skride’s tone lacked the requisite richness, trudging through the phrasing with tedium. Her thin, inconsistent tone felt lost in the fabric of the orchestra. It was clear that the orchestra tried to play sensitively to accommodate her shyness, but even this was not enough to prevent her from being swallowed by the CSO’s phenomenal brass.

Even the famous third movement, a set of peppy variations on a waltz-like theme, was sleepy and disappointing. I was reminded of a recording by David Oistrakh: the fire in technical passages, the controlled emotion in the double-stop sections. By contrast, Stride lacked an overall unabashed boldness and confidence that defines a satisfying performance. That’s not to say that Skride is not technically capable—her performance on Sunday was hardly sloppy. For a soloist who has played with some of the world’s best orchestras, her rapport with the CSO bordered on fear.

Thankfully, conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada was daring enough for the both of them. The 38-year-old Colombian conductor made his CSO debut this weekend with an ambitious program, opening with a bright and effusive performance of Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. Principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson took the famous clarinet solo in stride, offering an interpretation that mixed excellent technical ability with a clear tone and vibrant expressivity.

The orchestra responded fairly well to the young conductor’s exciting podium presence, particularly during forte sections. Orozco-Estrada clearly has a penchant for showmanship: he distributed the offstage trumpet role in Ives’s The Unanswered Question across three players, for example. Placing the trumpets at different locations backstage made for a disconcerting listening experience. Given the orchestra’s sensitivity—lucid strings with well-balanced woodwinds—there was no need to compensate with kitsch.

In a second questionable move, the young conductor played the Ives and Strauss without pause. Juxtaposing these two pieces is a clever way to showcase an orchestra’s ability to play the stylistic gamut. However, I would have liked at least a moment’s pause between the two. These are different works, by different composers: Any “wow moment” from hearing them together is overshadowed by an immediate sense of confusion. 

More convincing was the orchestra’s immediate exuberance on the Strauss. The Chicago brass proved its powerhouse reputation and then some—at times a touch overdone, the Durkheimian conception of collective effervescence palpable. Nevertheless, it was hard to hold back a smile during the iconic “sunrise” opening or when the power of the organ rippled through the hall.

As the large bell tolled in the final moments of the piece, the Sibelius from moments before seemed like an afterthought. Here was an orchestra that was both excited and exciting. Wiggling on the podium like a thrilled child, Orozco-Estrada unleashed an enthusiasm that drove home a lesson learned: timid players not welcome.

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