German conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach, well-known to Chicago music lovers from his decade-long tenure at the Ravinia festival, returned to Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan for a series of performances February 22- 27 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra featuring French pianist David Fray, whose playing of Chopin reached heights of clarity, filling Orchestra Hall with rich timbre and sonority. The concert consisted of a pair of Overtures, 2 pieces by Felix Mendelssohn, and the fine Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2, triumphantly rendered by Fray and the Orchestra.
– Carl Maria von Weber Overture to Der Freischütz, 1817-1821
The overture to Der Freischütz, in Weber’s own words, is meant to portray this opera’s 2 opposing forces, “the life of the hunter and the rule of demonic powers”. The hunter is revealed through the sound of horns quartet, the devil by the lower registers of the clarinets, strings, and bassoons. The languorous development of the slow introduction does a fine job of effectively crafting the mood for the opera. The following allegro section introduces melodies from several of the more important arias to come; the stage is wonderfully set for the dramatic stagecraft ahead! The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the command of Eschenbach- who seems to keep his eyes on every member of the Orchestra in turn- captured the expressiveness and lyricism, along with a mystical feeling, that showcase Weber’s position as one of “the true founders” of the German Romantic Movement in music.
– Frédéric Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21, 1829-1830
This piece has been described by music analysts as creating an “unrivalled” starring role for the piano, however the night this reviewer attended, the Orchestra created a dense canopy/curtain of lustrous sound for the delectation of the audience. After the orchestral introduction, upon the entry of Fray, the music came wonderfully alive. The second movement is a lovely nocturne of surpassing beauty, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra surrounding a seemingly nonchalantly improvised piano solo of understated technical demands.
A rapid rondo redolent of the mazurka brought the Concerto to an exciting finale with a fine display of the pianist’s skill. It is obvious that Eschenbach and Fray have collaborated for years; the conductor regularly consulted the pianist with his eyes. Fray, for his part, displays an extraordinarily eloquent pair of hands; the music they sent forth seemed to inspire the Orchestra, and vice versa.
– Felix Mendelssohn Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, 1826
“The course of true love never did run smooth.” (Shakespeare)
The incredible accomplishment this Overture represents, created as it was by a 17 year-old, speaks volumes about the young composer’s musical maturity and ability to juxtapose music with poetry. Mendelssohn is said to have been enthralled with the works of William Shakespeare, and this Overture, while contained within a traditional or formal structure, succeeds in displaying the very special union of comedy, love story and fantasy of the play.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the firm control of Eschenbach, launched into a captivating woodwind dominated introduction, announcing the various motives in sequence. There is a busy-almost scurrying- theme representing faeries; a transitional fanfare leads to a lyrical song for the lovers led by the violins; the exposition ends on a group of themes implying the clown, craftsmen and huntsmen.
The otherworldly faeries dominate the development of the next section, as they do in the play. Woodwind fanfares mysteriously- or even mischievously- emerge, the strings seem to laugh, the horns ring out.
– Felix Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4 in A Major (Italian), Op. 90, 1833
This symphony radiates joy from the moment the first movement unfolds with its dancing initial theme, rich in strings and woodwinds, which has been compared to a Roman carnival. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra adeptly made the transformation into the stately processional of the second movement through a brief Gregorian chant-like intro, with a determined rhythm set and held by Eschenbach, ending quietly. The minuet and trio of the third movement followed elegantly, moving into the rapid Italian folk dance figures of the finale.
After the concert, CSO Principal Clarinet Stephen Williamson and Lawrence Neuman, viola, participated in a pleasant Q and A with Frances Atkins, Director of Content, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in the Grainger Ballroom on the second floor of Symphony Center. They spoke about the joys of performing with the CSO- Neuman for 27 years- their especial delight in playing in programs filled with contrasts, and how each musical event, even repeatedly playing the same work, provided them with new and fresh experiences. The musicians referred to the pieces in the concert just concluded as “masterworks”.
For information and tickets to all the great programs of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to cso website
All photos by Todd Rosenberg