The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) prepared for a reunion last Thursday when it booked former principal conductor Bernard Haitink to conduct Schubert’s eighth symphony, the “Unfinished,” and Mahler’s symphonic poem Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). When Maestro Haitink took ill, the concerts became a different sort of homecoming for Los Angeles Opera conductor James Conlon, former music director for the Ravinia Festival, the CSO’s summer residence.
While successful overall, Conlon’s direction felt at times reserved, to the detriment of the performance. The second—and last—movement of the incomplete Schubert symphony, marked Andante con moto, lacked uniform enthusiasm. The ascending string lines in its latter half, expressive and sensitive as they were, contended with sleepy moments and shaky tuning in the horns. Principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson gave a particularly commendable performance on Thursday. He performed the famous clarinet solos in “Unfinished” with consideration: The solo melody’s third appearance in the first movement was colored with forte intensity and musicality, while the technically difficult second-movement solo, pianissimo in the altissimo register of the instrument, sounded effortless.
Conlon’s interpretation of the Schubert was dependable but not overwrought, at times veering a bit too conservative for this reviewer. His interpretation of Mahler’s Lied—a “song symphony” of six Chinese poems set to music for orchestra and two vocalists—was similar. The work is one of the composer’s most elaborate and demonstrates the extremes of his compositional gifts, in particular a mastery over large-scale orchestral writing. The Lied’s six movements alternate soloists and grapple with the complexities of the human experience.
In her CSO debut, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly carried the finale (“The Farewell”) with little orchestral support. A discussion of impending death, a theme familiar to the dying Mahler, “The Farewell” was the longest, least orchestrated movement in the piece and undoubtedly one of the evening’s highlights. While at other points her voice felt thin, here she dazzled with sensitivity and intimacy: Silence held the hall as Connolly finished her song.
Tenor Stephen Gould sang on Thursday despite a bad cold, which was audible particularly in his upper register. However, Gould was at his most vibrant during “The Drunkard in Spring,” and it was here that his voice shone in full health.
Earlier movements felt less powerful. The first (“The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow”) lacked its expected whimsy; the fourth (“Beauty”) sounded tired, its flourishes in the middle staid and anti-climactic.
In the orchestra, oboe soloist Alex Klein and flautist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson performed commendably throughout the Lied. Both soloists successfully demonstrated stylistic flexibility, balancing moments of frantic energy with soulful, poignant passages. Still without a leader, the CSO trumpet section played under Houston Symphony trumpet Mark Hughes, cementing their reputation for finesse and dexterity.
While unsatisfying moments in parts detracted from others of stunning nuance, Thursday’s concert thrilled with the undeniable genius of Schubert and Mahler. Whether it deserved as lengthy of a standing ovation as it received is another matter.
Correction on April 4, 2017, 2:32 p.m. CDT:
A previous version of this article misstated Bernard Haitink's title with the CSO. He was the orchestra's principal conductor from 2006 to 2010, not its music director.