On May 24, 2018, in a program to be repeated May 25thand 26th at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago, renowned Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and legendary guest pianist Dame Mitsuko Uchida in an inspiring program. The evening opened with Brahms’ gently beautiful Variations on a Theme by Haydn, which was followed by the mellow lyricism of Bartók’s serene and expressive Third Piano Concerto, and ended with Schoenberg’s rich, entrancing Transfigured Night for strings.
– Johannes Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a, 1873
It may be fanciful to suggest, but Salonen appeared to conduct the Orchestra as if it were a musical instrument. He was in deft and implicit control, under which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra produced subtle tempo changes and clear-cut articulation. The conductor sent the Orchestra into the original theme, no longer attributed to Haydn, 8 short renditions of that theme and the finale. The resultant layers of Haydn-esque sound, known as the St. Anthony Variations, were dynamic and forcefully realized. Each variation had a distinctive character, yet each also follows the original phrasing and harmonics, the whole culminating in a stunning and triumphant finale.
– Béla Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3, 1945
This final composition, written as a gift for his second wife, is a retreat from Bartók’s “uncompromising” modernism, and is filled with lush harmonies and “singing” melodies, performed here with brilliant technique and florid expression by Uchida amid wonderfully transparent textures produced by the Orchestra in ensemble.
The first movement opens with the piano performing Hungarian folk music, the Orchestra following with soft murmuring tones. With the return of that theme, the strings produce lustrous trills. In the final measure, a sound as of bird calls is suggested by the flute.
The strings alone slowly enfold in the opening to the second movement, with Uchida responding in poetic phrases, creating a complex dialogue with the Orchestra, interrupted by a spate of “nocturnal nature” music before the dialogue-now with the piano and woodwinds- resumed. Finally, the last movement is driven by its principal theme with ebullient energy.
Dame Uchida gave the piece a sense of power and wonder, meeting and matching the Orchestra, to much heartfelt applause.
– Arnold Schoenberg Transfigured Night, Op. 4, 1917, 1943
This lustrous performance, played by the Orchestra’s string section organized with the cellos moved down and to the left and the bass section at the back, gave the audience a readily accessible and lyrical Schoenberg, in a piece recorded by Salonen with the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra 21 years ago. This is a romantic, symbolic work, that Schoenberg said “Does not illustrate a particular action or drama, but is limited to depicting Nature and expressing human feelings”.
The 5 sections, played attacca, have distinctly different emotional feelings, and Salonen drew them forth with the fluid, seemingly-relaxed control that is his signature style. Beginning with a dark, slow introduction, moving through an agitated mood that becomes warmly graceful, and finishing with abundant harmonies in a feeling of happiness and peace, the Orchestra ended on a sense of lightness and culmination.
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